Less an artistic leap forward than a strictly commercial one, Widows, director Steve McQueen’s (12 Years A Slave, Shame, Hunger) six-year-in-the-making follow-up to the 2012 Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave, tries to strike a path between The Wire-influenced social and political commentary and a conventional heist thriller with a semi-subversive gender twist. It almost succeeds, largely due to McQueen’s keen eye for visual composition, intuitive sense of pacing, and an incredibly strong, talented cast that begins, but doesn’t end, with Academy-Award Winner Viola Davis (Fences), Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki (The Night Manager, The Great Gatsby), Michelle Rodriguez (the never-ending Fast & Furious series), and Tony winner Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale). And that’s just the top-line cast. Several paragraphs can be devoted to every perfectly cast, note-perfect performance in Widows.
Adapted from an early ‘80s British miniseries, Widows centers on Veronica (Davis), the semi-kept wife of Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), the successful leader of a high-end heist crew that includes Florek (Jon Bernthal), Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and Jimmy (Coburn Goss). McQueen counterbalances scenes of the heist crew’s respective domestic lives with the fateful heist that leaves them dead and Veronica, Alice (Debicki), Linda (Rodriguez), and Amanda (Carrie Coon), the “widows” of the title. While Veronica tries to cling to happier memories of her life with Harry, Harry’s inexplicable decision to rob a powerful gang boss and local politician, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Jamal wants the $2 million Harry stole from him and puts Veronica on a countdown: 30 days to repay Harry’s debt or risk not just her possessions, but her life too.
With Jamal’s enforcer-brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), perpetually nearby and Harry’s notebook containing details of old scores and a new, potentially lucrative score ($5 million), Veronica makes the only choice apparently available to her (i.e., not selling the notebook): She decides to get a heist crew together of her own and steal the $5 million. Veronica leverages Alice and Linda’s desperation to join her on a seemingly suicidal mission, eventually replacing Amanda, the mother of a newborn, with Belle (Erivo), Linda’s babysitter and future getaway driver. Working from a screenplay co-written with Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects) and Linda La Plante, McQueen never overcomes the central problem with Widows’ central conceit: Four women of disparate backgrounds, experiences, and skill sets transforming themselves into a tight, ultra-efficient heist crew in a matter of weeks. McQueen relies on his supremely well-chosen cast to carry moviegoers over the many moments of disbelief. It works more often than it doesn’t, sometimes despite itself.
Before Widows gets to the heist proper, however, McQueen works in an ambitious political parable involving a third-generation Chicago politician, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), running for the position of alderman recently vacated by his elderly father, Tom (Robert Duvall). It’s the same position Jamal hopes to win despite his newcomer status to the game – and it is a game, of course – of politics run and won by Chicago’s white elites. The younger Mulligan, long ethically and morally compromised by the corruption necessary for Chicago politics, all but wants to lose the race to Jamal. What he doesn’t want to lose, of course, is the money and power his family has accumulated over generations. Jamal talks the talk (i.e., community empowerment, development, etc.), but he’s just as corrupt as the politicians he’s replacing. It’s a deeply cynical, even hopeless view of politics as endlessly corrupt and it might be closer to an uncomfortable truth about American politics in or out of Chicago, but it’s far from the profound insight McQueen imagines it to be.
Where Widows doesn’t falter, however, is in the depiction of Veronica and her heist crew, a cross-section of disempowered women, Veronica by embracing the material possessions and comforts Harry’s crimes gave her, Alice by embracing a destructive view of herself as valuable only for her physical appearance or what she can offer a man, and Linda’s for letting her now dead husband handle her family’s finances. As an outsider who becomes an insider, Belle remains a sketchy, underdeveloped character. She’s obviously smart, ultra-capable, and fiercely independent, immediately willing to challenge Veronica moments after meeting Veronica when she’s treated with disrespectful condescension. But Erivo, in just her second film appearance, adds shadings, nuance, and tone to a character that at least on paper, deserved more attention. And with piercing, insightful dialogue about and between women, Widows overcomes every misstep or underdeveloped idea, eventually emerging as a must-see film, flaws and all.