Left with nothing. Capable of anything.
It’s always interesting when a ‘prestige’ director tackles ‘pulp’ material. It can go either way. Too often you can tell that the A-lister in question feels the material is beneath them and they’re more or less phoning it in, calling ‘action!’ for a paycheque. When it really works, however, is when the filmmaker recognizes the thematic and narrative depth inherent in the material and works to bring it to the surface in ways that a more genre-bound artist might not attempt.
With his fourth film, Widows, Steve McQueen proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that he’s in the latter category. Working with co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl (2014), to adapt Lynda La Plante’s early ’80s British crime drama, McQueen has crafted a tense, complex, thoroughly engaging Chicago-set thriller that balances a cracking heist plot with strong feminist themes.
The lives of Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) take a drastic turn for the worse when their criminal husbands — Harry (Liam Neeson), Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and Florek (Jon Bernthal), respectively — are killed in a robbery gone wrong. The grieving process is interrupted by the emergence of politically ambitious crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who holds the women responsible for the two million dollars that went up in smoke when their husbands tried to rob him. Under Veronica’s steely leadership, the women decide to carry out a heist of their own, targeting corrupt politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and using the plans and resources left behind by their dead partners — chiefly, Harry’s detailed notes on upcoming potential robberies. And so we proceed from there.
In terms of plot, Widows is very much a procedural. We follow the women as they at first rail against the position they find themselves in, then settle on a way out, and then methodically prepare for and execute their mission. In retrospect, it’s a fairly straightforward story. There are a few bumps along the way, the odd unexpected (unless you’re genre savvy) reveal, a few bursts of violence — you know the drill.
Thematically, however, Widows is digging deep, throwing out ideas of class, race and — in particular, and in all caps — gender in smart, transgressive, and articulate ways from the opening montage to the final shot. It’s a dense, complex film. There will be people who decry it as simple because of the relatively rote plot. Those people do not know how to read a movie — ignore them.
While the deaths of their husbands set the plot in motion, Widows makes no bones about the fact that its titular protagonists weren’t exactly better off when their men were alive in any case. Veronica’s marriage is stilted and loveless since the death of her teenage son in a police shooting, with her husband, Harry, withholding intimacy and withdrawing into himself. Linda’s husband, Carlos, fuels his gambling addiction with money he lifts from her dress shop. Alice’s husband, Florek, is just straight-up physically abusive.
What passes for conventional heterosexual relationships in Widows are all transactional. What do you need to be protected from? What will you put up with in exchange for that protection? And what will it take for you to nut up and breakthrough of such a toxic dynamic? Davis’ Veronica is our nominal protagonist here, but these ideas really coalesce in Debicki’s Alice, whose victimhood is reinforced by her emotionally abusive mother, Agnieska (a brief turn from Australian actor Jacki Weaver). Faced with the prospect of poverty following Florek’s death, Agnieska directly encourages Alice to get herself a sugar daddy through an online service, literally prostituting herself. Complicating matters, Alice’s brief, commercial relationship with a property developer, David (Lukas Haas), actually becomes a boon to the planned heist, with the film denying an easy, moralistic judgment of Alice’s decisions — it’s not what you do, it’s why you do it.
The film’s approach to race is an interesting one. In the macro, we get a detestable old bigot to hiss at in the form of Robert Duvall, The Judge (2014), as Jack Mulligan’s contemptible, corrupt politician father, Tom, and yes, our core trio are ethnically, almost mathematically diverse, while the political battle that backgrounds the film is black vs. white (Mulligan and Manning are contesting the same election). But in the world of Widows, class trumps race — or, more specifically, money does. What will decide the election is not activating ethnic communities to vote, but the two million dollars that will bolster either one campaign or the other. For our protagonists, it’s money, not equality (racial or gender) that will give them the freedom to live their lives.
This is really forefronted when the gang recruits a fourth member: harried singled mum/ beautician Belle (Cynthia Erivo, seen recently in Bad Times at the El Royale), who’s been picking up extra cash babysitting Linda’s kids while the plan comes together. There’s a great moment, subtly played, where Belle and Veronica are sitting in a van together, with nothing to say to each other. They’re both women, both African American, and the yawning chasm that separates urban, working-class Belle from polished, upper-middle-class Veronica (she’s a teacher’s union delegate) is so vast that they might as well be different species.
Crucially, none of this dense thematic work overwhelms Widows’ emotional drama, thanks to a flawless ensemble — a cast so good and so sprawling we’ve barely time to mention that Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out (2017), crops up as Manning’s thuggish brother/ enforcer, while the great Garret Dillahunt, 12 Years a Slave (2013), has a small role as Veronica’s dumb but well-meaning chauffeur, and Carrie Coon, Gone Girl (2014), is yet another widow. The MVP, however, is Debicki — future Oscar winner Debicki, we should start saying. In a seriously high caliber cast, her portrayal of a woman journeying from wounded, timid reactionary compliance to aggressive self-determination stands out.
Which is impressive as hell in such a standout film. Widows is a smart, driven drama that coopts the tropes of the genre to lay down some serious ideas while never forgetting to be relentlessly gripping, solidly entertaining, and thrillingly cathartic. Don’t miss it.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson