Given Steve McQueen’s (no not that one) previous works being far more dramatic affairs touching on protests, sex addiction, and slavery, having him helm a heist movie sounds strange on paper. Even more so when you realize the heist film is an adaptation of a British TV Series from the 80’s and co-written by Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn. But as fans of both Flynn and McQueen’s works and a solid cast backing them up, Widows looked to be a thrilling change of pace.
What we got was a thrilling change of pace, but still carrying McQueen’s dramatic flair.
Set in Chicago, the film opens with four robbers led by veteran criminal Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) on a job gone wrong that ends with all four of them being shot down by police. Harry’s widow Veronica (Viola Davis) tries to move on with her life, but she soon finds out that her husband’s crimes have passed onto her. The money Harry stole belonged to gangster turned politician Jamaal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), currently in a tight race for Alderman of the 18th Ward against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), a 2nd generation politician whose father Tom (Robert Duvall) was the previous Alderman before having to step down due to a heart attack. Jamaal needs the stolen money for his campaign and tells Veronica that if all $2 Million isn’t returned to him, he’ll have his cold-blooded brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) kill her.
With few options open to her, Veronica opens out to the widows of the other three men, though only getting replies from two of them. Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) who just lost her business because of her husband’s gambling debts and Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debecki), a former trophy wife struggling with taking care of herself for the first time. While neither Linda nor Alice are interested in following their husband’s criminal life, but both are desperate for money and agree to help Veronica pull off Harry’s final heist. Along the way they have to deal with crooked gangsters, even more crooked politicians, and their own family troubles before they’ve even come close to the actual heist.
Despite the genre, the actual heist of this film only takes up a small portion of the third act, it’s the driving force of the film, but there’s actually a great deal more surrounding that story that helps build up this world in a very efficient way. The political battle between Manning and Mulligan carries more importance than you initially think, the widows have their own personal battles with Alice’s turn to escorting, and Veronica finding out some ugly secrets of her husband both factoring heavily into the plan. There’s a lot of build-up in the first half, but the way it all ties together by the second gives the film a solid backbone to carry its weight. By the end of the film, not everything is tied up nicely, but enough to give a satisfying ending to the story.
Acting was solid across the board, but I wish some of the supporting characters had more to them, none of the husbands were giving much, but Neeson’s Harry had a few surprises revealed through flashbacks that I won’t give away here. Carrie Coon as the fourth widow Amanda bowed out of the plan early, but came back with her own shock that annoyingly didn’t add to much, definitely someone that should’ve played into the film more. Garrett Dillahunt had a small role as Veronica’s driver Bash, but he did enough to endear us to him and his care for his employer, again would’ve liked to have seen more from him. Wikipedia has him listed as the husband of Linda’s babysitter Belle, but either the page is wrong or the film didn’t work that in well, I’m going with the former.
Belle herself (played by newcomer Cynthia Erivo) came into the film pretty late with the group in desperate need for a fourth member but she makes an impression, not taking any shit, and willing to do what it takes to help. I think Belle came into the film a little too late to really stand out, her troubles with working any job she can get and rarely seeing her daughter was interesting, but she needed to be more involved with the film.
Jack Mulligan gave the film an interesting secondary villain, following in the footsteps of his father Tom (Duvall playing the vicious old man very well) and the Mulligan’s family hold over the 18th Ward for 60 years. Jack is the first to face real trouble, not just from Jamaal, but an audit investigating kick-backs from construction contracts. Farrell balanced the line between genuine threat with his backroom deals and easy lying and well defined character with him admitting in secret he doesn’t care for his father’s legacy, there’s more to him than you think, and Farrell works with it very well.
Main antagonists of the film were Jamaal Manning and his brother Jatemme, much like Farrell, Henry played a great dichotomy to Jamaal, on the one hand he’s trying to better himself and help his community (though more himself) but on the other he’s still a gangster at heart and works with threats and intimidation. His first scene with Veronica showed a fraction of his force, but it was enough to leave a mark. By contrast Kaluuya taps into a cold-hearted bastard for Jatemme, he had this way about him where he could commit unspeakable acts and just not blink during the whole ordeal, it’s a far cry from Get Out, but Kaluuya is brilliantly terrifying throughout.
Out of the main three widows, I was least impressed by Linda mostly because she’s still the same tough bitch character that Rodriguez usually plays. There is an attempt to build her character with Linda leaning more towards suburban mum, she can’t shoot, she struggles to lie, and has an uncharacteristic breakdown in the first act. Admittedly Rodriguez does a decent job with Linda, but she’s still a little too much like herself. Conversely, Debecki as Alice had a great turn in the film, she starts the film way too green for her own good, her husband (Jon Bernthal in yet another cameo appearance) was abusive, but kept her in a life of luxury, her mother (Jacki Weaver in a small c*nty role) pushes her towards escorting to make money. But it’s in that lifestyle that Alice realizes that she can use her looks to her advantage and finds a skill in deception. Debecki’s turn from scared little woman to full-fledged criminal is a great one to witness.
Finishing off the cast is Veronica, being the only wife fully understanding what her husband did but ignoring it to keep herself safe. The loss of Harry puts her in a difficult position and forces her to put on a bitchy act in order to keep the widows on track. Like Tyree and Farrell, Davis balanced two aspects of her character, on the surface she played the boss bitch as a suit of armour, but every so often she’d let her emotions release, even if just for a moment to keep her from being overwhelmed. It’s a role that works best by not being overpowering even with Davis having scenes which push her close to breaking down. It’s easy to see why she’s the central character and Davis carries a lot of the film as a result.
As I said at the start, Steve McQueen feels like an odd choice for a heist film director but he makes it work. With the death of their husbands kicking off the story, all of the wives are dealing with grief in their own way, Veronica closes herself off from everyone, Linda tries to keep herself going for her kids, and Alice puts herself in a difficult situation to survive. That subtly level of grief, especially from Veronica, is present throughout the film and informs a lot of the choice that the wives make, but more than that McQueen includes themes of racial and sexual politics, sexual less with the wives gender not playing a big deal into the story, but racial elements are massive with Jack Vs Jamaal carrying a lot of racial tension. Harry’s marriage to Veronica brought with it some ugliness, most notably involving their late son in a very shocking and relevant scene. I don’t know if anyone other than McQueen could’ve included these moments and had them felt organic to the story.
As great as McQueen does with the meat of the story, he’s still able to deliver on the surface level, the opening heist is intercut with a gentle love story of Harry and Veronica’s and the juxtaposition is downright startling. The build-up to the heist is wrought with tension thanks to the Manning brothers always in the background, driving a fear throughout, and even amongst the wives with none of them really trusting each other is even more palpable. When we get to the actual heist itself it’s not a long affair, but it absolutely does not go to plan, I won’t spoil how but it’s a shock to witness.
Widows is a film that should stand out for anyone looking for a pure and simple heist film. There’s enough tension and thrills to tide them over but for anyone looking for something more, McQueen and Flynn have crafted an intense ride of race, gender, politics, betrayal, and grief. The ensemble is excellent with everyone from Farrell and Duvall to Henry and Kaluuya and especially Davis and Debicki bringing their A-Game. Steve McQueen might not have been an obvious choice, but damn if he doesn’t prove himself.
I am giving Widows a 4.5 out of 5 Hairpieces!