There’s an intriguing duality that clings to Steve McQueen’s new film, Widows. For much of its runtime, the movie works as a compelling socio-political drama, one that explores the nature of race and representation in Chicago, a city that has long suffered from corruption in its political machinery. It’s a logical subject for McQueen to explore, considering the political nature of his previous films, especially Hunger (2008) and 12 Years a Slave (2013). And yet, in its second half, the film mutates into a high-octane crime thriller, one that ranks among the best work of Michael Mann. It’s in those sections that the film reveals its dual authorship, both to McQueen and Gillian Flynn, the talented writer of thrillers and mysteries (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects). Neither film is quite hardy enough to support itself, but when combined, the two create a sumptuous piece that’s as thrilling as it is moving.
Widows is, as the title would suggest, a film about women, and about women coming into their own. It’s with men that the film starts, however; unsurprisingly, they create a mess. After having said goodbye to their spouses, four men initiate a robbery. It’s clear that the group is led by Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), and they’re obviously well-versed in the mechanics of the crime. But something goes wrong this time, and a squadron of police cars are waiting outside the warehouse where the men have camped out. As the door opens for the truck to escape, the police open fire, engulfing the vehicle in flames.
The story then shifts to Rawling’s wife, Veronica (Viola Davis) in the days after his death. McQueen mastered the ability to portray depression and despondency in earlier films like Hunger and Shame (2011), and he’s able to extract an uncomfortably realistic performance from Davis as a grieving woman. There are none of the false histrionics we’ve been led to normally expect; her version of mourning is about detaching herself from the world, and shrinking until there’s nothing left.
But the world isn’t about to forget her. The money Harry stole didn’t belong to some faceless bank or corporation — it belonged to Jamal Manning (Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry), a crime figure running for an alderman position on Chicago’s South Side. For decades, the position has been held by Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall), and now his son, Jack (Colin Farrell), is running to replace him. The Mulligans have used corruption and deception to their advantage for years, claiming to represent the area’s black residents while lining their pockets with cash. Manning hopes to unseat the Mulligans with the money that Rawlings had stolen, despite being just as power-hungry as they are.
After a visit from Manning and his fixer/brother, Jatemme (a chilling turn from Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya), Veronica is tasked with rounding up the $2 million that her husband stole. Now that she’s a social pariah, she determines that theft is the only way to get the cash, and she assembles a team of the dead men’s widows (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki) along with one outsider (Cynthia Erivo).
McQueen resists the temptation to immediately switch back into thriller mood. He devotes a large chunk of the film to following these women in their daily lives as they navigate their new statuses. The scenes with Debicki in particular are heartbreaking. She plays a woman who hasn’t figured out her place in life before being confined to the role of wife, and now her young marriage is over, and she’s once again adrift. Debicki is over six feet tall and lithe, something her previous film work has mostly tried to hide, but McQueen embraces it. She stands out and apart from others in scenes, as if she doesn’t quite belong. He imbues her with a sense of isolation that helps us to understand her desire to join a wildly dangerous mission — it’s her first chance to have a real purpose and a connection with others. She provides an interesting counterpoint to Davis, who is nothing if not established in her life.
As excellent a drama as Widows is, it’s equally adept as a thriller. While watching, I had forgotten about Flynn’s screenwriting credit, but a shocking twist half-way through the story makes her contributions clear. The screenplay has a great sense of the way each woman’s private life conflicts with their mission; Erivo’s character puts her job as a babysitter and her relationship with her wife on the line as she plots the robbery, while Debicki’s character has to juggle her controlling mother and a distant playboy (Lukas Haas) she meets while escorting. They can’t drop everything on a dime the way their husbands did, but failure isn’t an option.
McQueen’s go-to mode is to film steely, modernist spaces with an eye for ennui, but the grittier Chicago locales bring him down to earth a bit, which in turn gives the film a lively mood that hasn’t existed in any of his previous work. You get the sense that he’s actually having fun with the material, something that’s not evident in 12 Years or Shame (as great as those films are).
It’s hard not to watch Widows without comparing it to another heist film from this year: the failed Ocean’s 8. That picture attempted to recycle the style of Steven Soderbergh’s original, with none of its cleverness and no real insights into the lives of the women doing the robbing. McQueen and Flynn studiously avoid making the same mistake; their characters come first, and the heist second. It’s a winning difference.