Dir: Steve McQueen
The Art of the Steal
With his origins in the contemporary art of video installation, Turner prize-winning Steve McQueen’s gradual transition to popular cinema has brought with it an additional layer of artistic weight. While that implies a certain foregone prestige in his films, it also has the potential to repress their mass appeal.
The brilliant, brutal, and harrowing Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011) were followed by the more epic and emotional gut punch of 12 Years a Slave (2013), swiping him the best picture Oscar along the way. Now he turns to out-and-out crime thriller, and his most populist project yet: adapting a Lynda La Plante-penned ITV mini-series from the early eighties. McQueen’s treatment transplants the London-based kernel of the idea to the mean streets of Chicago, reimagining pretty much everything else around it, from the corrupt ground up.
Immediately, we’re bundled into the back of a speeding getaway truck while chasing police cars and a trail of destruction follow in point-of-view perspective with heart-stopping realism. It’s a breathless opening gambit that demands mandatory attention, locking you into the plot from the starting shot. But this botched job turns out to be the gang’s last, and we’re soon standing with their Widows at the funerals of their dear departed husbands.
When the political candidate for local Alderman comes knocking (Brian Tyree Henry), demanding the campaign funds that were stolen, Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) swiftly realises she’s only got one possible course of action to get that sort of money within two weeks. Going through her deceased husband’s effects, she just happens to have discovered his meticulous plans for the next hit.
The story that follows is so leanly executed; every single line advances the plot forwards, framed by cinematography that supplies added nuance. Its twists and reveals are disclosed organically, without the overdone crescendos of Hollywood theatrics. Every character, in some way, is crooked, be it the doomed thieves, the bereaved anti-heroines, the politicos vying for control of the precinct, or the ‘associates’ they use when they need to apply a little ‘pressure’. And yet, you totally understand, even sympathise with, the motivations of everyone. Because, to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, in a society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. As well as being completely engaged in the drama, you can always sense the director’s aesthetic eye. Any stretching of plausibility remains convincing throughout, all presented with McQueen’s visual finesse. And that is a three-way balance that could be the holy grail of cinematic fiction.
The extended ensemble cast is so strong and impeccably chosen that it feels unfair to highlight any one individual. But Viola Davis is the damaged heart of the piece, stringently getting through both her grief, and her new identity as gang leader, in (and after) her husband’s wake. Daniel Kaluuya’s icily menacing turn will be hard to erase from the memory, while it’s so satisfying to see Liam Neeson capitalise on his late-career hardman schtick in a film with substance and credibility.
A bold tale of women forcibly wrestling the gritty crime thriller out of the men’s cold dead hands could even be said to chime with the #TimesUp movement burning through Tinseltown. This is a truly riveting and supremely accomplished heist movie for our times, which has the dextrousness to reward the viewer with something as delicate as a smile. Once it’s done some time, this exemplary work may prove to be the artist McQueen’s popular masterpiece.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★