To call Widows a leap forward for director Steve McQueen, or to otherwise imply this is some kind of improvement on his already capable and distinct style, is not fair to McQueen or a good assessment of his previous work (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave). However, there is no denying that Widows represents something new from McQueen, something pulpier and more commercial and more broadly accessible than his previous work. Widows is a heist movie, a straight-up piece of genre entertainment, and while it has a little more on its mind than just robbing banks, it is still a heist movie. With McQueen’s observations working within a story he scripted with Gillian Flynn (based on a British televisions series), Widows is a reminder what it looks like when smart filmmakers with Something To Say throw their talents into genre, which is thoughtful AND f*cking awesome movies.
The film opens with a robbery gone wrong as Chicago bank robber Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his whole crew die in a shootout. This leaves Harry’s widow, Veronica (Viola Davis), on the hook for two million dollars with a local crime boss whom Harry stole from. That crime boss, Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry, still having A Year), comes knocking, wanting his money back, and his scary brother and enforcer, Jetamme (Daniel Kaluuya), will do literally anything to get it back. Desperate, Veronica unearths Harry’s notebook, which includes plans for a robbery. She recruits the other widows to help her, and the film becomes these unlikely women putting a heist together step-by-step.
On that level, Widows is extremely satisfying. This is not the glamorous crime of Ocean’s 8, but Widows does build the heist piece by piece as the women acquire the various elements they need to complete the score. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) tries to figure out what a mysterious blueprint is for while Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) obtains the getaway vehicle and guns. Struggling single mom Belle (Cynthia Erivo) is recruited by Linda when the women get desperate for a driver after their first guy was killed. It’s amazingly satisfying watching the women—especially Alice, the youngest and initially least capable among them—accomplish their various tasks and move closer to the robbery.
But on another level Widows is also working as a commentary on life in a corrupt system that forces everyone into a kill-or-be-killed mentality. Set in Chicago, Widows doesn’t make a huge deal out of the nationally scandalizing headlines about our crime rate, but it nails the constant grind of living with it. It’s a problem that is worse in some areas than others, but no one in the city escapes it, it touches all of us eventually. Ditto the political corruption for which we are legendary. Jamal isn’t just a crime boss, he’s also running for alderman in a ward long controlled by an Irish-American family. His opposition is the incumbent Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the heir apparent of the outgoing alderman, Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall, at his most Robert Duvall). Tom is essentially willing Jack his ward as he retires, which Jamal points out is not how democracy works, but then that kind of thing happens in Chicago all the time.
And the result is what Widows depicts: Neighborhoods that have shifted demographics are represented by people who do not live in the same world. One scene in particular brilliantly demonstrates this, as McQueen shoots a typical conversation revealing the true nature of the seemingly good-guy politician from outside the car. Usually, we would see this inside the car, complete with Jack’s heavy sighs and tired gestures. Instead, as he kvetches about not actually wanting to be in politics, we watch the world change as his car turns the corner, going from a lower class neighborhood to stately homes on tree-lined streets within moments.
But the real power of Widows is the women themselves. Davis gets to chew on lines like “There’s no time for crying!”, Rodriguez gets to show she can do more than just scowl, and Debicki gets a very fulfilling self-actualization arc that turns her into the toughest among them. And the actual heist is staged and shot as brilliantly as the rest of the film. And while it isn’t glamorous like Ocean’s 8—although Viola Davis’s wardrobe is pretty spectacular—Widows does make a similar observation about the freedom financial independence affords women, as well as the compromises women make to get along with men. Widows is a heist movie with a mind and a voice and a total lack of fear in using both.