Movie Review: Widows
By Matthew Huntley
December 5, 2018
“Widows” is a deeper-than-usual heist picture with touches here and there of a Steve McQueen film. Unfortunately, it’s not a Steve McQueen film with touches here and there of a deeper-than-usual heist picture. The “genre” aspect of the movie ultimately overshadows McQueen’s signature boldness and envelope-pushing, which I guess was to be expected given it’s his most mainstream and expensive movie to date. McQueen seems okay with this though, as he’s gone on record to say this film is the one he’s been longing to make ever since he was a teenager, probably because, while growing up in London, he adored the British TV min-series of the same and felt his love for the material could do it justice as a Hollywood thriller.
And it has. To be sure, “Widows” is tense, well made, strongly performed, and even amusing at times. In fact, it’s probably all of these things even more if you’re not aware the director is Steve McQueen, who’s exhibited such exceptional storytelling abilities with the powerful “Shame” and Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” that “Widows” almost feels like a break from the unflinching and hard-hitting content we’re used to seeing from him. It’s solid and entertaining, but it’s also more good than great. For most viewers, that will be enough.
Like the mini-series, the film follows the four widows of men who were all part of a crime team. The men’s last job, worth $2 million, led to a chase and shootout with Chicago police, who tracked them to a warehouse and blew up their getaway van, leaving behind only charred bodies. The incident renders Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and Amanda (Carrie Coon) financially strapped and essentially on their own, with two of them as single mothers.
Veronica’s troubles actually go beyond financial, because the last man her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) and his team robbed was Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry), the black candidate running for ward alderman, who needed that $2 million to help win him an election and, as he tells his angry and merciless brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), “a better life.” Manning comes calling to Veronica’s posh, upscale Chicago penthouse, threatening her (and her little dog too) if she doesn’t get him back his money in one month.
Feeling betrayed and trapped, Veronica discovers Harry left her a notebook with details of his next job, worth $5 million. She asks Harry’s loyal driver, Bash (Garret Dillahunt), to get her the names of the other members on Harry’s team, which leads her to the other widows. She arranges a secret meeting and warns Linda and Alice (Amanda is a no-show) it’s just a matter of time before Manning comes after them, too, if she can’t deliver the money, and so she proposes they plan a heist of their own to take the $5 million. At first, the other women think Veronica is crazy, but once their own desperate reality sinks in, they too feel like their choices are limited and cautiously go along with it.
And so the traditional “heist” aspect of the movie begins to take shape, which, in many ways, is just a more serious version of others of its kind, like “Ocean’s 11,” complete with one of the women in charge of getting a van; another finding out details about the building holding the loot; and all of three women pretending to be someone they’re not in order to get information about the people they’re robbing. We’ve seen this setup before, but the film’s dark, somber tone and strong female performers lend it more credence.
Fortunately, the screenplay by McQueen and Gillian Flynn, for all its obligatory heist elements—including unforeseen circumstances that lead to a violent death; a shocking twist or two; and various other contrivances that ensure all the pieces eventually fall where they’re supposed to—also gets enlivened by other interesting subplots and characters. One involves Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the white candidate in the race for alderman who just happens to be the son of the incumbent (Robert Duvall), who has to step down because of his failing health. Farrell is well cast and convincing as a man who doesn’t even want the job he’s seeking but feels he must out of obligation and survival. His relationship with his father is sad and remorseful, and what’s particularly effective about Farrell and Duvall is that neither actor holds back and we really believe their characters’ relationship has been embittered to the point where neither man can stand the other’s presence. We feel we get a fairly accurate representation of a political family whose ties have been sacrificed for the sake of maintaining a public image.
What’s also special about the film is just how much it develops its main characters, and in relatively realistic terms. As farfetched as the plot eventually gets, McQueen grounds it with his three leads, each of whom is at the top of her game and given ample screen time so that we see her beyond a generic archetype.
Veronica regrets falling in love with a criminal and not making more of herself. She’s all but friendless and her only companion is a West Highland White Terrier named Olivia. She also struggles with a past tragedy, which gets revealed to us in a disturbing (and sadly not too exaggerated) flashback. Emotionally wounded and mentally exhausted, she makes it a point to tell her cohorts the heist may not succeed and “there will be no happy reunion,” which makes us wonder just how things will pan out, which is another way McQueen creates intrigue and suspense.
Linda, meanwhile, has lost her dress shop and has a mother-in-law who blames her for her husband’s death. Plus, she has a young daughter and son to raise, and once the heist job gets underway, she hires Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a hairdresser by day and “city sitter” by night, to watch them. When we first meet Belle, we wonder exactly how she’ll fit into the plot, but once she does, it’s all the better for it because Erivo is so radiant and has such a strong screen presence.
Alice is perhaps the most complex of the three. She’s suffered a lifetime of physical and emotional abuse, first at the hands of her overbearing mother (Jacki Weaver) and then from her recently deceased husband (Jon Bernthal) (“When a [crime] job went well, he was nice to me,” she says). The heist has given her a reason to become independent and stand up for herself. She also begins seeing David (Lukas Haas), an architect who hires her as a call girl. Their relationship is interesting and peculiar, but the movie cuts it short and leaves it hanging in limbo.
Clearly, there’s a lot going on in “Widows” besides the main heist, and its McQueen’s devotion to the characters that makes us appreciate the film beyond its type, particularly how he shows them adapting to their new roles in relatively down-to-earth fashion. For instance, when Veronica asks Linda to locate the building holding the money based on a blueprint Harry left behind, Linda says, “How am I supposed to do this?” Most heist pictures assume the characters can just pick things up on the fly, but “Widows” allow the women time to learn and react the way real people might. It’s these moments that elevate the film above the level of standard. Still, as good as “Widows” is, I hope McQueen returns to his trailblazer roots and continues to harness his energy and abilities toward more complex narratives. He’s spoiled us with such compelling films before that anything else inevitably feels like a step backward, however small. McQueen should take that as a compliment.