Far removed from the intimate and introspective dramatic efforts like Hunger and Shame that began his directorial career, or the Oscar-winning historical tale 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen’s Widows is a gritty, visceral genre entry about a group of women orchestrating a high-profile heist. But unlike the stars of this year’s other female-led crime caper, the sleek and stylish Ocean’s 8, McQueen’s characters aren’t professionals, and they’re not flirting with criminality as a lark – these are desperate women who’ve been forced into a situation where they have no other choice.
Widows opens on Veronica (Viola Davis) and her husband Harry (Liam Neeson), sharing a tender moment in bed, before cutting away to a group of armed men in the midst of a high speed police chase, with Harry at the wheel. We’re introduced to the other members of the crew as McQueen continues to juxtapose between mundane family routines and the aftermath of a job that has clearly gone wrong, culminating with a SWAT shootout and a massive explosion that leaves Veronica, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) alone in the world (this should come as no surprise, given the film’s title).
Not long after the funeral, local gangster Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) shows up on Veronica’s doorstep, demanding repayment of the money that was stolen by her husband and subsequently destroyed in the wreckage. It seems the cash with which Harry absconded was intended to fund Jamal’s campaign to become alderman of the 18th ward, where he faces stiff competition from Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), son of a career politician whose family has controlled the district for decades. Jamal sees the election as a means to not only lift up the people of his neighborhood, but also to lift himself from the darkness of the underworld, even while dispatching his stone-faced, psychotic younger brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) to stab, shoot and maim anyone who might jeopardize his success.
With a one-month deadline to come up with $2 million, Veronica sifts through her late husband’s notebook and strikes gold: it seems Harry had already planned out his crew’s next job, and everything from blueprints to getaway routes are at Veronica’s fingertips. All she needs is a little help from her friends – or in this case, from the other women whose husbands lost their lives when Harry’s last job went south. Unfortunately, Veronica isn’t exactly a people person, much more prone to barking commands than inviting an open and collaborative dialogue. It’s not the kind of approach that fosters a strong working relationship, but Linda and Alice aren’t shy about dishing out just as much as they take.
Never afraid to sink her teeth into a role, Davis crafts a tough-as-nails exterior for Veronica, snarling insults at the other women while trying to mask the creeping sense of dread that continues to mount as the deadline draws near. Rodriguez tones down her usual tough girl act to great effect, and Debicki is absolutely stellar as she leverages a “dating arrangement” with a wealthy architect into a series of benefits that bring the heist closer to reality. Also of note is Broadway star Cynthia Erivo, who shows up in the film’s latter half to provide some extra physicality – and some extra attitude, as Veronica learns firsthand.
Nearly everything surrounding the women and their meticulously planned robbery are handled exceptionally well, but the subplot involving Jamal’s increasingly ugly race against Jack is less engaging – at least until both story threads converge in the third act through a series of twists, turns and double-crosses. With a screenplay co-written by McQueen and Gone Girl scribe Gillian Flynn, it’s no wonder that Widows weaves an intricate web of deception, and the execution of the heist itself – with our gun-toting heroines clad in hoodies and facemasks – is an absolute nail-biter.
“The only thing that matters is that we survive,” Veronica tells the other women, and it’s a strong sentiment, but survival is only one piece of the puzzle. Each of them turned a blind eye to the nefarious deeds that fueled their respective lifestyles when it was the men doing the dirty work, but now that each woman is in charge of her own destiny, are they truly prepared for what that entails, or the physical, mental and emotional toll it may take? The answers aren’t nearly as clear as we might want them to be, but they’re almost guaranteed to shock and surprise you.
Steve McQueen's first foray into genre filmmaking is a homerun, featuring crackling dialogue, an intricate plot, a terrifying villain and an unbelievably tense climax, all anchored by uniformly superb performances from the year's best ensemble cast.