A visual artist whose movies have dealt with starvation, sex addiction, and slavery, Steve McQueen has never been considered a safe commercial bet. That just makes “Widows,” his bracing, moody heist thriller about women who finish the robbery their husbands started, all the more satisfying: McQueen has made a first-rate genre exercise that doubles as a treatise on race and gender, juggling dramatic payoff with heavier themes. “Widows” embraces its trashy, melodramatic twists while deepening their potential. If all escapism looked like this, America would be smart again.
With an aesthetic that merges the blithe energy of “Ocean’s Eight” with the griminess of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” McQueen adapts the ‘80s British TV series into a gritty Chicago crime saga, weaving a handful of characters into a web of corruption that threatens them all. In a dynamic opening sequence, several robbers lead by the fast-talking Harry (Liam Neeson) speed through the city with the police on their tail; the chase ends at a garage, with bloody gunfire and an abrupt explosion that leaves all of their wives grieving. McQueen’s swift visual style takes hold early on, as he cuts from the fiery death scene to the somber image of Harry’s wife Veronica (Viola Davis) mournfully gazing at the empty side of her bed.
“Widows” largely belongs to Davis, whose character steps into her husband’s shoes when every other option runs out. The actress has never been more commanding: Veronica’s a stern, driven woman, but even she’s unprepared when local criminal Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry) bursts into her palatial apartment one night demanding the money that her husband stole from him. He gives her a couple of weeks to deliver, and she finds a potential solution in one of husband’s old notebooks — details about a robbery the men never completed. Realizing that the other widows all face a similar comeuppance, she lures them to a sauna where she lays out the scheme. Davis clearly has a blast intimidating everyone in the room, and it’s notable that her plan isn’t optional: If they don’t play ball, they’re all screwed.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth
McQueen, who wrote the screenplay with “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn, strikes an ironic and involving tone. Both playful and dead serious, “Widows” leaves you uncertain if the filmmaker is winking at the audience. Veronica’s plan might seem ludicrous, but her confidence endows the movie’s throbbing pace with purpose as her newfound partners bring their own determination to the scene. The bulk of McQueen’s cast receive sufficient backstory as this leisurely two-hour plus movie sets the main scheme in motion. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez, readymade for this kind of volatile material) realizes that she can’t keep her husband’s store going without paying off his debt, and finds herself adrift when his family cuts her off. The much younger Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) contends with the aftermath of a relationship that had sustained her entire lifestyle. Her crude mother (Jacki Weaver) suggests her daughter go into prostitution to pay for college. As always, the robbery gig holds the potential for a better tomorrow, but the stakes are grounded in real purpose.
McQueen assembles these storylines with a less-involving drama surrounding Jamal’s attempts to become the first African-American official elected as alderman for the 18th ward, unseating the Trump-like power broker Jack Mulligan (a frumpy Robert Duvall) who wants his politically minded son Tom (Colin Farrell) to take over the position. This Shakespearean struggle eventually relates back to the widows as they realize the target of their husband’s scheme was none other than Jack himself. By stealing money from the wealthiest white guy in town, they’re effectively influencing a bigger picture that could impact the future of the city itself.
It’s a fascinating premise that turns the fast-paced drama into a not-so-subtle allegory for class struggle, but whoever demanded subtlety from heist movies? It’s a blast to watch the women piece together their plan by visiting a shooting gallery, or seducing an unexpected target, or tracking down a getaway vehicle while arguing through their situation. With Veronica’s obedient dog in tow, the group doesn’t always agree about the best way forward, but they develop an engaging chemistry that gives them new reasons to stick together. No matter the stakes at hand, this is a movie as much about women trying to survive in a man’s world as it is a riveting crime saga.
McQueen kicks up the tension for the final showdown, in part by slowly developing one key threat in Jamal’s brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), a murderous psychopath who tracks down information with an eerie coolness that borders on pure movie monster. In one prolonged sequence, he stares down an insubordinate member of the criminal gang and forces him to freestyle as McQueen’s camera swirls around the pair, before Jatemme shoots the man in the head. Kaluuya barely moves his eyebrows. He moves through scenes with a terminator-like efficiency, calmly extracting information from his victims as they scream and bleed. It’s a world away from the baffled survivor that scored Kaluuya an Oscar nomination for “Get Out,” and further proof that this major screen talent is just getting started.
There’s so much to appreciate about “Widows” that it’s easy to shrug off some of the sillier moments: Alice talking an older woman into buying her guns, say, or a third-act reveal that savvy viewers saw coming 90 minutes earlier. Some of the blunt one-liners sound like they’ve been lifted from soap operas and arbitrarily chucked into individual scenes. (“We have a lot of work to do. Crying isn’t on the list!”) But McQueen’s such an involving filmmaker that these indulgences hardly matter. Working with his usual cinematographer Sean Bobbit, he injects each scene with a jittery naturalism imbued with constant urgency from Hans Zimmer’s score.
Ultimately, “Widows” works as well as it does due to the way McQueen juggles substance with entertainment value to such eager subversive ends. The movie engages with topics as complex as sexism, police brutality, and interracial marriage, but it still delivers on the car chases and gunplay. No superhero movie digs this deep. “Widows” doesn’t reach the lyrical heights of McQueen’s previous achievements, lacking the emotional depth of “12 Years a Slave” and the raw physicality of “Hunger” and “Shame,” but it’s a singular vision all the same. On some level, it feels like a plea for better studio product: It’s a #MeToo revenge story with a Black Lives Matter backbone, but nobody said a sharp polemic can’t also be a good time.
“Widows” premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. 20th Century Fox releases it theatrically on November 16.