The Films of Steve McQueen

November 16th, 2018The Films of Steve McQueen

Director Steve McQueen (no relation to the famous actor) has been away from movies for a few years. But you probably remember his last film, because it won Hollywood’s top prize. McQueen is the man behind 12 YEARS A SLAVE, and now he’s the creator of WIDOWS.

The new heist movie is loosely based on a UK television series. It is better known for bringing together a cast that includes Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, and many more. The story unites a group of women whose criminal husbands have been killed. With a ruthless underworld figure demanding money the men took from him, the women work to pull off their own heist plan.

McQueen was able to recruit all those talented and in-demand performers in part thanks to the strength of his past work. Let’s look back at the immersive and powerful films of Steve McQueen.

Hunger

[Credit: Icon Productions/Zeitgeist Films]

After making a long string of well-received short films going back to the early ‘90s, McQueen got financing for his first feature. HUNGER is set in 1981, in the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. It’s based on the story of a hunger strike by Irish Republican Army prisoners held by the British. The focal point is prisoner Bobby Sands. He goes on strike to protest the treatment of he and his fellow inmates, and to get the British to recognize them as political prisoners.

To lead the film, McQueen chose an actor on the verge of stardom: Michael Fassbender. In order to play Sands, Fassbender stuck to a severely limited diet. He ultimately dropped about a quarter of his body weight for a section of the shoot. Despite the political underpinning of the story, McQueen doesn’t talk about who is right or wrong. This is a movie about determination, of two opposing forces unwilling to compromise. It is stark and intense, written without a traditional plot structure. The movie creates a sense of the terrible conditions in the prison, and the amazing force of will exerted by Sands. It’s an incredible debut feature.

Shame

[Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures]

McQueen’s second feature reunited him with Michael Fassbender. The subject was different but no less intense. The actor plays a man whose life is defined by sex addiction. Brandon Sullivan, an executive in Manhattan, avoids relationships and traffics in porn, paid sexual encounters, and random hookups with strangers. Then his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to visit, and the depth of Brandon’s problems becomes impossible to ignore.

McQueen did not shy away from the messy details of the character’s addiction. While the movie is more clinical than anything else, SHAME earned an NC-17 in the US for its explicit depiction of sex. While that limited the film’s, er, exposure, it did not diminish the commitment McQueen, his cast and crew all brought to the story. SHAME isn’t an easy movie to watch, but the grimy drama is all the more effective for its physical excess.

12 Years A Slave

[Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures]

For this third film, McQueen went back to history for a harrowing story. Solomon Northrup was a violin player and a free man kidnapped by con men in Washington, DC in 1841. He was immediately sold into slavery. Northrup was forced to work on a number of Louisiana plantations until he was freed twelve years later. He dictated a book chronicling his ordeal, 12 YEARS A SLAVE, published in 1853.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Northrup with a fierce but sensitive, ultimately unbreakable performance that earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Lupita Nyong’o won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Patsey, a fellow slave who has the misfortune to earn the interest of her master. Michael Fassbender appears as well, as the most horrific of Northrup’s masters. And Brad Pitt (who also produced) plays the man who helps Northrup gain his freedom. (Of course the producer gets to play the good guy!)

Now, five years after the release of 12 YEARS A SLAVE, we’re excited for WIDOWS. It’s a chance for all of McQueen’s talents and skills to shine. The movie will highlight his eye for casting, his realistic storytelling, and his ability to find unexpected drama in any situation. And it’s a heist film! What could be better?

WIDOWS opens on November 16.

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