Widows review – a heist gone wrong, done right

Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Cynthia Erivo headline a prestige heist flick from director Steve McQueen

Liam Neeson leads a gang of criminals who pull off a heist, only to get caught and killed by the cops. That could sum up the entire plot of a different film, but with Widows, it’s only the first five minutes. Steve McQueen’s film begins with a sequence that intercuts between the robbers and their respective home lives, as Viola Davis kisses her husband goodbye one last time. Brilliantly, it’s not just a film about the aftermath, but about the next heist.

Based on Lynda LaPlante’s ITV series, which was pretty much the Bodyguard of its day, the film shifts the action from London to Chicago. Still grieving, Veronica (Davis) is visited by Jamal Manning (Atlanta‘s Brian Tyree Henry) who lost a lot of money when her late husband Harry (Neeson) ripped him off. Running for public office against third-generation politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), Jamal wants to be paid back two million dollars in full by the end of the month.

With no financial recourse, she’s driven to drastic measures. Having procured her husband’s notebook, she discovers the plans for his next job and enlists the widows of Harry’s fellow robbers, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) to help her complete it. As the deadline draws closer, each of them is pushed to their limits as they make one big effort to stay afloat.

It’s not surprising that McQueen, a feature director who was three for three after his previous films, Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years A Slave, is now four for four, but the manner in which he’s followed up his Best Picture winner might be unexpected for some. Once you see the film, you can completely see how the dramatic element appealed.

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If there are grounds for comparison with his previous dramas, then it’s most like Shame, with Chicago supplanting New York as the setting for the protagonist’s chilly isolation. Cinematographer Sean Bobbit changes up the look of the film, but McQueen’s preference for probing long shots comes through. The script, which the director co-wrote with Gillian Flynn, is similarly searching.

That’s really what marks it apart from Ocean’s 8, or any of the other Ocean’s films for that matter. While these women don’t have much criminal experience between them, they’ve all lived in this world to some extent, enduring abuse and deception and resentment from the people around them. Taking on this job is just the next stage in adapting to survive for them. Even with Veronica as the deadly serious leader, this is no slick, professional operation. While distinct from one another, the stakes for each character are established early and felt throughout the drama.

With a glare that could stop a man dead at fifty paces, Davis is outstanding in the lead role, effortlessly nailing both her gritty facade and the inconsolable grief she only lets out in private. More than holding their own next to her, Debicki is hypnotically watchable as Alice, a woman who’s determined to prove herself after being put down all her life, and while it’s easy to forget how good Rodriguez can be outside of her “fambly” fare, this feels like her best, most dramatic role in a long time.

Hot off the back of her great turn in Bad Times At The El Royale, Cynthia Erivo plays Belle, the fourth woman in the crew, who joins a bit later but has just as much at stake. Her performance is physically and emotionally striking from the moment she’s introduced, as we see her come home from work at her hairdressing job for all of two minutes before she has to sprint across town for a babysitting job. She’s leaving her own kid with her mother in order to look after someone else’s kids, just to make ends meet.

There’s a very strong argument to be made that McQueen has assembled 2018’s best cast, as the leads are backed up by a rogues’ gallery of great actors from film and TV. As well as the likes of Farrell, Tyree Henry, Robert Duvall, and Daniel Kaluuya in major supporting roles, there’s time for the likes of Neeson, Carrie Coon, Jon Bernthal, Garrett Dillahunt, Kevin J. O’Connor, Lukas Haas, Jacki Weaver, Adepero Oduye, and Matt Walsh to appear in smaller roles. All that and a cute dog – in the form of Veronica’s West Highland Terrier – according to a certain Best Picture winner, that’s practically Shakespearean.

It’s a muscular crime drama that grips like a vice, even as the pacing takes its sweet time to wind up to the final outcome. While the film isn’t above some darkly funny scenes, especially those involving Debicki procuring guns and a getaway vehicle, it’s a sobering watch. But with an almighty break into the third act, the last half hour takes off like a rocket. Subverting all expectations, the sudden change in pace whacks it home, emphasising how quickly things escalate in these situations but also leaving certain emotional threads dangling.

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Even as a remake, it feels like an original treatment of the familiar tropes, with the exception of the score. Before you find out Hans Zimmer was the composer, you might think that the film was temp-tracked with The Dark Knight and Inception, and they just forgot to replace it. That’s not to say that the music isn’t good, it’s just not as fresh as the rest of the film.

Widows is a truly singular update of its source, modernising and problematising the social situation in which the heist drama takes place. All of the leads are amazing and with an ensemble cast this good, it almost feels like McQueen erected a theme park-style sign on-set, reading “You must be this awesome to enter”. While not exactly propulsive, it’s a gripping and methodical watch that leaves you with more to digest than most of the big screen capers that populate the genre.

Widows is in UK cinemas now, and out in the US from November 16th.