There are heist movies — and then there are heist movies directed by Steve McQueen, the incomparable artist behind 12 Years a Slave. Is the Oscar-winner slumming? Hardly. In Widows, about four Chicago women out to finish a robbery that their dead husbands barely started, the filmmaker brings everything he has as an artist to this raw, resonant thriller. The screen damn near explodes as his genre caper suddenly encompasses a whole social strata (race, class, politics, gender). You’re in for a hell of a ride.
The powerhouse Viola Davis, fire blazing in her eyes, stars as Veronica, the widow of Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), a career criminal whose team went up in flames in the film’s thunderously exciting heist-gone-wrong opening. Judging from an intimate flashback, it’s clear these two had a good thing going. McQueen takes the time to show that Veronica likes to drop a vinyl record on a turntable and feel the heat of Nina Simone smoldering through “Wild Is the Wind.” And the script that the director and the gifted Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects) adapted from a 1983 Brit TV series lays in the backstory of a shared tragedy, the loss of their son. Remember these details.
How much did Veronica know about Harry’s criminal activities? Her salary as a teachers union delegate is hardly enough to live high in a penthouse. How far will she go to maintain that Lake Shore Drive lifestyle? Motivation comes from Jamal Manning (the reliably superb Brian Tyree Henry), a crime boss now running for alderman. He pays Veronica a visit, plays a terrifying game of bouncy-bounce with her fluffy dog and demands the $2 million he says Harry and the boys stole from him. Jamal wants the loot — or else. To show he’s serious, the bigwig sends in his psycho brother Jatemme, a sadistic enforcer played with maximum menace by Get Out‘s Daniel Kaluuya. Beating up on a guy in a wheelchair is not beyond him.
Scared yet? Veronica is, her vulnerability peeking through the cracks of a chilled exterior. She’s doesn’t know how to get the money, but she does discover a heist blueprint that Harry left behind. One problem: Veronica can’t do it alone. She’ll need to recruit the other widows.
Amanda (Carrie Coon) is too busy with her new baby. But Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) can’t find another way to keep her clothing store running since her husband gambled their savings away. It’s a kick to see this can-do actress play timidity … even though you know her reluctance is not going to last long. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), whose husband beat her, faces limited options. Her nutso mother (Jacki Weaver) says prostitution may be an answer. Her “date” with a real-estate creep (Lucas Haas) says different. Debicki is all kinds of terrific in a role that encompasses fun and fury. And then there’s Belle (a sensational Cynthia Erivo), a beautician turned getaway driver with the moxie to stare down Veronica and take on any man. Erivo, a Tony winner for the Broadway musical The Color Purple, is a movie star in the making.
It’s quickly all-systems-go for a team of women forced to learn on the job. McQueen is eons away from the lightweight farce of Ocean’s 8. In a reality divorced from Hollywood fantasy, action can have deadly consequences. These underestimated widows know what they’re up against. As Veronica says, “No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.”
For a while, you may think so too, until these formerly male-dependent women find the courage to stand on their own against venal double-crossing folks on all sides, including a racist power broker (Robert Duvall) who wants to see his son Tom (Colin Farrell, sleaze personified ) take the alderman seat. The spectacular cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who shot with a poet’s eye on McQueen’s Hunger, Shame and 12 Years a Slave, creates a corrupt world in microcosm. In one soon-to-be-famous shot, Tom sits in the back of his car, hatching a crooked scheme with his cronies. We hear them. But all the camera shows us only what’s outside the window — slums giving way to manicured lawns and mansions as the division of wealth is capsulized in seconds. It’s in that toxic landscape where Veronica and her team must make their way.
Outside of such classics as The Asphalt Jungle and Heat, a heist movie rarely illustrates how the tentacles of corruption reach into every aspect of society. As Widows hurtles toward its climax — there’s a surprise twist that’s almost too easy to see coming — the crime itself becomes an afterthought. It’s the flesh-and-blood characters, not the plot mechanics, who give this electrifying movie its juice. Empowered by their own awakening self-worth, these women are not to be messed with. And McQueen makes sure you show them respect while he fries your nerves to a frazzle.