Updated: Feb 7, 2020
A group of criminals are killed on a job, burning up with all of the stolen money. The money had been the property of a powerful crime boss who now expects the team leader’s widow to pay him back. Desperate, she attempts to gather the widows of her husband’s partners and, using his detailed plans, rob his next target. This is the setup of Widows, a tense heist thriller that is so much more than a simple plot description can convey. It is actually a complex look at race, gender and class issues in the trappings of a genre story. Director Steve McQueen (who co-adapted a 1983 British tv series with “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn) seamlessly weaves these ideas into his film. The result is one of the most captivating, well-acted and entertaining movies of 2018.
For starters, there is the issue of being a woman who largely relied on her husband for money. Veronica has a fancy home she does not own and a personal driver she cannot afford. When crime boss Jamal Manning comes to her demanding $2 million dollars or else, she does not have anywhere near that, or the means to get it. Her fellow widows are in similar shape. Linda runs a store that, she soon finds out, she does not actually own due to her late husband’s spending habits. Alice, who was abused by her husband, is completely aimless with him gone and gets pushed toward high-class prostitution by her equally abusive mother. All of them are assumed to be powerless to do anything about their situation.
This is commented on by the other major subplot in the film, the race for Alderman in the 18th district of Chicago between Manning and Jack Mulligan. Manning is a criminal who wants to use the position to make money off of the city. Mulligan is the son of a career politician who is running mainly based on expectation and is in the midst of a corruption scandal. Neither of them care about the people they would be representing. To them, the system is the way it is, so they might as well take advantage of it. The widows represent the people, abandoned and dismissed. They have the ability to change things, even if no one else thinks they can.
There is also the issue of race. Manning is black and Mulligan is white. They are competing in a largely black city Mulligan does not live in. More complicated than that, Veronica is a black woman whose husband, Harry, was white. That led to difficulties in their relationship that are relayed via flashback. McQueen does not let any of these things sit on their own. Instead of being there just to enhance the genre story, they give it additional meaning.
The cast assembled by McQueen’s team is absolutely fantastic. Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki as the title characters are all great. Davis is as powerful as ever as the strong-willed Veronica. The underrated Rodriguez is equal parts tough and vulnerable as Linda. Debicki, the relative unknown of the main cast, has her breakout as Alice, who has been forced to rely on others for so long and now may be inspired to make her own choices.
There are so many standouts in that supporting cast. Brian Tyree Henry is scary and smart as Jamal Manning. As his brother, Daniel Kaluuya has a loose-cannon quality to him. He does not understand why his brother needs to run for office when they already make a lot of money. It brings up an interesting comparison between those who steal to your face and those who do it behind your back. It is the difference between a clever career criminal like Harry (an effective Liam Neeson) and the slimy, entitled Mulligan (an understated Colin Farrell, playing well off of Robert Duvall as his hateful, racist, father). The other great performance comes from Cynthia Erivo, so good in Bad Times at the El Royale, who brings a determined intensity to her role as a mother working multiple jobs to support her daughter. It is a character that easily could have, in lesser hands, been turned into a plot device.
Widows (124 minutes, minus the end credits) is an intricate heist story where the heist itself is less interesting than the reasons it is happening. It has a fairly twisty plot, but does not depend on those twists. Steve McQueen, who was nominated for an Oscar for Best Director in 2014 for 12 Years a Slave, takes a mass entertainment concept and develops ideas around it instead of settling for only the initial setup. This is a movie that can be enjoyed for its plot and then enjoyed even more for what that plot means to the world surrounding it. It is one of the best movies of the year.
5 out of 5
Viola Davis as Veronia
Michelle Rodriguez as Linda
Elizabeth Debicki as Alice
Cynthia Erivo as Belle
Colin Farrell as Jack Mulligan
Brian Tyree Henry as Jamal Manning
Daniel Kaluuya as Jatemme Manning
Robert Duvall as Tom Mulligan
Liam Neeson as Harry Rawlings
Directed by Steve McQueen
Screenplay by Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen