After winning awards for “Best Picture” and “Best Director” for his superb 2014 drama 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen could’ve made just about any movie as his follow-up. Luckily for us he decided to make Widows, a commercial heist film that deftly balances thrills with poignancy and is highly entertaining while remaining firmly grounded in the real world. Adapted from the 1980s British television series, this is McQueen’s attempt at blockbuster filmmaking as he transports the British drama into modern Chicago. Coming from the man who also brought us the harrowing art films Shame and Hunger, Widows is a crime heist that is concerned with robbery at every level, from the personal to the political, as the enormous ensemble shows how cycles of injustice create opportunities for all of them to rob and be robbed themselves.
The heist gang’s ringleader is an unlikely one: Veronica (Viola Davis) is a teacher’s union representative who suddenly finds herself thrust into crime when her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) and his crew are killed in a heist gone spectacularly wrong in a blistering and jarring sequence that opens the movie. Her existence in an upscale and modern apartment on Lake Shore Drive suggests that she is not ignorant of her husband’s line of work yet his world is unnavigable to her; soon she is visited by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a local criminal now running for 18th Ward alderman, and his terrifyingly violent brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya). They both inform her that Harry’s last job was to rob $2 million from the Manning campaign coffers, money that was destroyed in their failed heist. In no uncertain terms they make it clear that it now falls on her to get that money back in a month or else. The stakes are as high as they are painfully clear.
Complicating matters is McQueen’s Chicago, itself a seeming microcosm of America at large, which is presented here as a haven of entrenched corruption and equally entrenched racial lines. The campaign for alderman finds Manning running up against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), a third generation politician looking to replace his aged and corrupt father (a chillingly noxious Robert Duvall). The Mulligan’s represents the one corner of the 18th ward that is obscenely richer than the rest and this is made all the clearer in a bravura sequence in which Mulligan drives from a campaign event in the middle of the inner city and within minutes finds his landscape change from slums to multi-million dollar homes, the dividing line between them barely blocks apart.
It is into this stark divide that Veronica must wade to navigate her escape path from her entrenched life. Her only seeming option is to tap the other widows of the heist gang, each of whom have been mistreated by their significant others. There is Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), whose husband (Jon Bernthal) showered her with gifts to make up for physically abusing her and whose mother (Jacki Weaver) sees fit to push her daughter to sell her body to make ends meet now that she is single again. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) meanwhile finds her clothing business seized because of her dead husband’s gambling debts. She convinces these women that the only way to escape the sins their husbands have put them through is to get back the money their husbands lost, and maybe gain a little cash of their own. They recruit Linda’s babysitter, Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a beautician who has to work several side jobs to make ends meet even if it means barely seeing her daughter. Their heist is not one meant for glamour, notoriety, or fame. Theirs is a heist of emancipation.
If there is any weakness to this movie, it is the sheer size of this plot. This is somewhat understandable given that McQueen is trying to condense a 5-hour mini-series into half that time. The script, written by McQueen and Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn also does the audacious thing of cutting some plot lines short while expanding others (for instance, Colin Farrell’s entire subplot). The twisty nature of the narrative leads to many loose ends, but at least in this instance it simply made me want to inhabit this world a little longer rather than be frustrated by its lack of closure. If anything it is the rare movie in which I left instantly longing for a sequel, in a world where even mediocre movie installments seemingly can get multiple sequels green-lit based on the strength of the IP alone.
Widows world is a rich one that is begging to be explored because it might have the strongest ensemble cast assembled this year, each of whom bring their own unique dynamism to the proceedings. Anchoring the movie is Davis, who once again proves that she is a criminally underrated actress and one of the best working today. Her role requires a tricky balancing act, showing crippling grief and resolute strength often in the same scene but she manages this task effortlessly, commanding just about every scene she appears in and infusing the movie with every bit of energy it needs. Her motley crew comprising of Debicki, Rodriguez, Erivo is similarly compelling as with little exposition all three of them physically embody their particular struggles of having their safety net pulled out from under them. Debicki in particular shines and is one of the few who can go toe-to-toe with Davis without missing a beat. Their characters are deep wells begging to be explored, the great shame is that we only have a little over two hours with them.
Widows represents that increasingly endangered Hollywood creation: a popcorn movie that is also aimed squarely at the adults in the room, that is willing to engage you intellectually while providing you all the requisite thrills. It is doubtful if Widows will change Hollywood’s stance of pivoting away from this sort of movie, but McQueen’s effort certainly stands as proof that maybe it should.
Runtime: 129 minutes
Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn
Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Bryan Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson.