Beyond all its other attributes, what’s perhaps most remarkable about Widows is the man who made it. An Oscar-winning filmmaker and, before that, an acclaimed visual artist known for his arresting video installations, Steve McQueen has long focused on the suffering of the human soul, again and again exploring the anguish within our spirit. There hasn’t been much indication that the thrills of pulp fiction have been part of his DNA, and so it might be easy to assume that McQueen, while adapting the 1980s British crime series created by Lynda La Plante, would either condescend to the audience or drain the material of its vibrancy. Incredibly, his Widows does neither: This is a mature, exciting, utterly engrossing heist film that proves to be far more than just a crime drama. The movie hums with menace while also being clear-eyed about its characters and their milieu. With Hunger, Shame and 12 Years a Slave, McQueen tested our endurance for man’s inhumanity to man. With Widows, he brings the same intelligence, seriousness and ingenuity to the multiplex.
Set in Chicago, the film stars Viola Davis as Veronica, who’s in the midst of mourning. Her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) has just died in a shootout with the police—although she doesn’t quite want to acknowledge it, Harry was a professional bank robber, and his most recent haul ended up killing him and his partners. But Veronica’s grief has to be put on hold after a dangerous man named Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry), who’s running for political office, approaches her with an urgent message. He was the target of Harry’s last heist, and now he wants his money back—even though it burned up in the fire that claimed Harry and his team. If Veronica doesn’t come up with a couple million dollars, she’ll end up like her husband.
Veronica is terrified—she works for the city’s teachers union and doesn’t have the resources or the means to grant Jamal’s request—which is when she hits upon an idea. Harry left behind a journal with detailed plans for his next heist. Veronica recruits the widows of Harry’s team to pull off that robbery. These women—working-class Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and sheltered, spoiled Alice (Elizabeth Debicki)—don’t seem like the bank-robbing types. But what other option do they have?
Working with co-writer Gillian Flynn, the author (and screenwriter) of Gone Girl, McQueen plunges us into this high-stakes world from the start, showing Harry’s last moments during a bravura chase sequence as he and his men fire at oncoming cops while hanging on for dear life in the back of a van careening down the road. Widows doesn’t keep up that level of extreme intensity, but the movie never exactly slows down, either.
There’s far more than a heist going on in this picture. Dexterously, McQueen juggles a few storylines that sometimes intersect with one another, including a contentious alderman election being waged between Jamal and Jack (Colin Farrell), a handsome, slick politician who’s the son of a powerful local bigwig (Robert Duvall). Jack sincerely wants to make his district, which is poor and mostly African-American, a thriving environment for new business, but he has to contend with an electorate that doesn’t entirely trust him. Simultaneously, the widows have to pick up the pieces of their individual lives, and we also gain a greater understanding of Jamal’s criminal operation, which is overseen by his brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), an ice-cold enforcer who is skilled at intimidation through violence.
Widows sketches out a world, not just a plot, and what’s endlessly fascinating is exploring alongside McQueen this ecosystem of crime, racism, sexism and politics that he uncovers. In his films, McQueen has often shown a keen interest in how his characters navigate their hostile terrain—the environment is as important as what’s in the foreground—but the richness of his vision of Chicago elevates everything that happens over the course of this incident-packed narrative. When Veronica and Jamal face off, we understand that it’s more than money at stake—there’s a tension between two different economic classes of people. When Cynthia Erivo’s hardnosed Belle joins the widows in their scheme, we see how the character’s situation has brought her to this moment, and also why the rest of the team are faintly dismissive of Alice’s relative good fortune. And when seemingly mismatched characters find themselves in the same room later in Widows, it’s not a matter of narrative convenience: McQueen has laid out the connections between universes that make these unlikely encounters entirely understandable, even fated.
Amidst Widows’ tension and twists, there is also a story of profound grief. Davis is superb as a bright, organized woman who’s learned to cope with loss—Veronica has absorbed other heartbreaks in her life—and what’s profoundly moving about Widows is how little sadness the character has time to reveal. There’s simply no time as she’s trying to stay alive and also pull off an impossible robbery. Davis holds Veronica’s tension beautifully, connecting with McQueen’s previous films in their close study of the pain we carry around, and the spiritual cost it demands.
As terrific as Davis is, one wouldn’t want to undersell this stellar ensemble. Kaluuya is nightmare-inducing as a sadistic heavy, while Farrell portrays ethical torment with aplomb. If Rodriguez is not quite as commanding as her female costars, then Debicki reveals a newfound grit that’s surprising and welcome, and Erivo provides Widows with an excellent jolt about halfway through (as if the film needed more energy).
To call Widows merely a heist film would be to shortchange it. And yet, when it comes time for the robbery, McQueen, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and editor Joe Walker deliver an exhilarating one that’s steeped in our knowledge of these characters and their personal stakes. (Hans Zimmer has created a marvelously driving score that’s especially electric near the end.) If thrillers are meant to be escapist, nobody told this cast and crew. Sure, Widows is a dynamite entertainment, but it’s also more mournful, thought-provoking and intelligent than that. Adults often complain there aren’t good mainstream movies for them—ones that can engage them, entertain them and leave them with something to chew on as they leave the theater. Widows is here waiting for you.
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen (screenplay); Lynda La Plante (television series)
Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson
Release Date: November 16, 2018
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.