In most heist movies, the thrill is from making the score, beating the house. With Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn’s Widows, there is no victory over the system; there’s simply breaking even, and maybe gaining on a little on the side. When trapped in a rigged system, this can be triumph enough. The tonal distinction is all the difference in placing the movie apart from so many of its genre peers and, in its better moments, achieving a kind brutal authenticity that is more rewarding than anything found in an overstuffed briefcase.
Adapted from a Lynda La Plante miniseries, McQueen’s approach to Widows is by far his most mainstream and commercial effort to date after somber journeys into despair like 12 Years a Slave and Shame, yet the latest is still clearly a Steve McQueen picture, even when it occasionally runs against some of Flynn’s most sensationalist and pulpy flourishes. As such, the heist that the film builds to is less the goal than it is the byproduct of three fascinating women who’ve been forced into each other’s orbits because of a common thread; cleaning up after their late husbands.
Before even the opening credits are over, Viola Davis’ Veronica is a widow truly aggrieved at the loss of her husband Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson). Harry was the top thief in Chicago, which is probably why when his van blew up during a job gone wrong, the Chicago Police just stood by and cracked jokes. But that fire also took Harry’s younger crew, including cameoing Jon Bernthal and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo. This of course leaves a hole in each widow’s life. For Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), her beloved husband was also a deadbeat gambler who bet the mortgage on her clothing store, which is also now the only livelihood for her young family; Elizabeth Debicki’s Alice, meanwhile, is reveling in an unspoken relief that her abusive beau is gone, but as someone trained by her mother only to trade on her looks, she has no prospects, save for her mother (Jacki Weaver) already whispering about online-arranged rendezvouses.
Yet Veronica arguably has it worst. She loved Harry, having buried a teenage son before now putting the boy’s father also into the ground, and despite his leaving a penthouse full of fine things for her, they’re all on the chopping block along with her actual neck when local neighborhood tough guy-gone-legitimate Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) comes a-calling. See, it was Jamal’s $2 million in a duffle bag that burned up with Harry in that van, and while Jamal is definitely trying to adjust to the straight and narrow—even attempting a run for local alderman against a dynastic family of sleazy Chicago politics (embodied by Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell)—he still needs that money to run his campaign, and he still has a terrifyingly reptilian brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) with feet firmly planted in the old ways of solving problems.
Veronica has one month to get their money back, and instead of letting Harry’s sins sink her, she decides it’s time to commit a number of her own by perpetrating Harry’s next planned score. And she’ll get the other widows in on it, lest they want their names also being fed to Jatemme in a few weeks.
So many of McQueen’s movies are focused on the intimate despair of suffering. Even 12 Years a Slave, which cast an epic lens at the dehumanizing mechanization of slavery, still was painfully derived from one man’s personal vantage of hell. Widows, however, showcases a directorial flair for balancing large ensembles ensnared in a plot-driven web, particularly since what unites all parties is a form of anguish.
With its very title, the film suggests bereavement as a focal point, and while that torment is very pronounced for Veronica, the film more largely encompasses the indignation felt by a cultural malaise from all directions. There is of course the fact that all three central women have, knowingly or not, been reduced to mere accessories by their husbands, and treated as just one more piece of movable product by the apathetic police and the leering Manning brothers.
Flynn’s screenplay really digs into this in a sometimes amusing and always insightful way, while ever lending itself well to McQueen’s signature melancholy. Veronica’s marriage to Harry is explored in an impressionistic manner, revealed in half-dreams and forgotten memories of love and loss; the way Harry devours Veronica’s face like it holds the secret to eternity in the opening shot expresses a physical desperation, but it is nonetheless informed by the whims of a man who placed his values over the spouse he leaves at home. Conversely, Alice must deal with having moved from her mother’s house to her husband’s apartment like any other transaction in her life. She doesn’t even bat too much of an eye when mama suggests it’s the most natural thing in the world for her daughter to consider a career in escort services.
However, the film also builds to a larger canvas of unease in significant ways, including tackling the implicit challenges of a black woman married to a white man, especially if that white man is treated by everyone as a criminal and she, a relatively honest woman, is too. This is then juxtaposed to to an overarching cynicism exemplified by Farrell and Duvall’s smiling, Kennedy-esque Mulligan family being every bit as opportunistic as the Mannings; they just carved out their perch generations ago. Either way, this community is doomed from whichever patristic taker gets his cut.
In this vein, the movie takes a strong “pox on all your houses” stance that could easily run the risk of being glib if not for the picture’s overall crisply delivered narrative told with an evident glee. As much liberated as he is constrained by the commercial imperatives, McQueen’s thematic considerations act as deep reservoirs inside of a conventional studio movie. It is always but it also always has bite… and always terrific performances. Davis is obviously the standout as Veronica, a woman of substance and means who has willfully lived with her eyes closed. She enjoys the sterile existence of her penthouse apartment, but has no illusions of where it came from or how she is viewed for her choice of husband—as well as why his being a thief might be the least of it. Davis can play these slow-to-anger storm bringers in her sleep, but she finds real fire underneath all that wind and fury, signifying a resilient and utterly compelling protagonist.
Debicki is also able to steal much of the movie as the granddaughter of Polish immigrants who never learned to drive, much less steal, yet adapts very quickly. Raised to be a trophy, she also gives a golden performance as a woman waking up to her ability grab the ring all on her own, especially in a film quietly aware of the advantages she might have over the likes of Veronica or Linda. And Kaluuya will certainly change audience perceptions after his empathetic work in Get Out. His coldblooded killer here is afforded the kind of moustache-twirling sequences that wouldn’t be out of place in old James Cagney movies.
There’s so much innate cleverness in McQueen and Flynn’s fast-moving schemes that it’s a shame it becomes a little too clever for its own good and stumbles a fair bit in the third act. While the heist is always a means, as opposed to the end, the film’s finale veers into the weeds, with the picture trying to play the audience with several “twists” that, like Flynn’s best scripts, strain incredulity. Only in this case, it strains necessity too. Widows is loaded from top to bottom with terrific performances and the confident swagger that comes with holding all the cards up its sleeve. So there’s no reason to attempt to pull yet a fifth Ace out of the cufflink. It’s a bizarre concession to genre conventions that Widows had already sneaked past without a peep. While it only strengthens the movie’s likelihood of being a sleeper hit, Widows hits on all other fronts just fine.
Widows premiered at TIFF and opens in theaters on Nov. 9.