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‘Widows’ Editor Layers Suspense Into Steve McQueen’s Crime Thriller

More than five years ago, while finishing the Academy Award-winning “12 Years a Slave, ” director Steve McQueen told editor Joe Walker about a different project he had in mind: an adaptation of the hit ’80s British television drama “Widows” from crime writer Lynda La Plante.

The movie adaptation, co-written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl,” “Sharp Objects”), is set in modern-day Chicago, where four women (played by Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Carrie Coon) find themselves alone and unprotected after a heist gone wrong leaves their criminal husbands dead. Pressured to pay off their $2 million debt, the wives plan an all-or-nothing heist of their own to retake control of their lives.

Viewers are catapulted into the allegory with an opening that intercuts intimate moments among the married couples and a raging police chase from the point of view of an escaping van. On the surface there’s a lot of violence, but the movie also observes deep social issues, including entrenched political corruption and a troubled mix-race marriage between Veronica (Viola Davis) and her husband, Harry (Liam Neeson). “It’s a tightly cut sequence that sets up all the major characters very economically,” notes Walker, who used the opportunity to underline temperament. “It’s designed to be a confrontational opener. You have this moment when Veronica and Harry are in bed, and as he playfully lurches toward her, it cuts sharply to the van under gunfire. We maximized each cut to draw out the inner tensions of their relationship.”

The edit paralleled the narrative complexity: a cinema jigsaw of 146 scenes, 75 locations and 81 speaking parts that include Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Cynthia Erivo and Robert Duvall. Everyone has his or her moment, and the joy for Walker was finding the balance between the momentum of the story itself and the separate stories of the individual characters. “The aim is to bring in all the elements and get them to click into place,” says the two-time Oscar-nominated editor. “By imagining where the audience is and what information they have to draw a conclusion, we can stay ahead of them or side by side but never behind.”

A Hans Zimmer syncopated score keeps viewers on edge by hammering the plot twists and turns, while characters cope with private and public demons to ratchet up the suspense. In one scene, Veronica reflects on her lost husband, howling with sorrow in front of a mirror before adjusting herself to put on a public image. In another, political candidate Jack Mulligan (Farrell) rides with his assistant Siobhan (Molly Kunz) in a limo that starts in a rough neighborhood and ends up in a leafy suburb. We never see their faces, but she tells Jack he needs to shape up if he wants to become mayor.

“It’s a striking moment for Siobhan,” says Walker, “as the rest of the time she has a different public persona. It’s a signature McQueen move — to try to grab your attention by putting a frame around something and pointing you in the right direction but leaving you to figure it out on your own.”

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