Review: McQueen’s ‘Widows’ is a Gripping Heist Thriller with Dynamite Performances
by Adam Frazier
November 15, 2018
Originally based on the popular UK television series from the 1980s created by Lynda La Plante, Widows is directed, co-written, and produced by British filmmaker Steve McQueen, whose 12 Years a Slave won the 2013 Academy Award for Best Picture. McQueen’s films, including Hunger, a historical drama about the 1981 Irish hunger strike, and Shame, a drama about a sex addict coming to terms with his traumatic past, are always concerned with pain and suffering. McQueen’s latest, the heist-thriller Widows set in Chicago, is an entertaining departure from his signature brand of Criterion Collection-ready misery porn, but still finds time to explore grief and despair with his characters, amidst the explosions and shoot-outs.
McQueen’s Widows stars Viola Davis as Veronica Rawlins, an upper-class woman who must pick up the pieces of her life after her career criminal husband, Harry (played by Liam Neeson), dies one night during a botched heist. Veronica is visited by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry of FX’s Atlanta), the man her husband robbed, who delivers an ultimatum: retrieve his $2 million or suffer the same fate as her dearly departed. Manning needs the cash to finance his electoral campaign for alderman of a South Side precinct, against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who is seemingly destined to follow in the footsteps of his father, Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall), as alderman for the 18th Ward.
After discovering her husband’s notebook, which contains a detailed plan of his next heist, Veronica sets out to recruit her crew, the widows of Harry’s cohorts in crime. There’s Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez), struggling to keep her family and business afloat, and Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and The Great Gatsby), a Polish immigrant and now widow to an abusive, controlling brute played by Jon Bernthal (of AMC’s The Walking Dead, The Wolf of Wall Street). Together, they set about gathering everything they’ll need for the robbery. Linda analyzes the blueprints in Harry’s notes while Alice procures the firepower they’ll need to infiltrate the building, which just so happens to be the Hyde Park mansion of the Mulligan family.
What’s most interesting about the script, co-written by McQueen and author Gillian Flynn (of Gone Girl, HBO’s Sharp Objects) is that this is not the story of master thieves with unique skill-sets coming together to pull off the crime of the century. Instead, each person that intersects comes from different ethnic, financial, and social backgrounds. No one’s an expert jewel thief or safe-cracker, they’re diametrically opposed; the only thing that binds them together is that they’re widows with their backs against the wall. To execute their plan, the crew will need one more member – a driver. Linda suggests Belle (Cynthia Erivo of Bad Times at the El Royale), a hairdresser and part-time babysitter who looks after her children. A single mother from the South Side, Belle knows all about doing what needs to be done to survive and jumps at the chance to better provide for her family.
On its surface, Widows is a crowd-pleasing mash-up of this year’s Ocean’s 8, and F. Gary Gray’s 1996 film, Set It Off. Beneath the sleek exterior, however, is a socially conscious film; an intricate examination of race, gender, and class with complex performances by one of the best ensembles in any movie this year. Davis will deservedly receive an Academy Award nomination for her performance here, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few supporting nominations as well. Rodriguez, Debicki, and Erivo all get their chance to shine, and their male co-stars – Farrell, Duvall, Neeson, Henry, as well as Daniel Kaluuya, who plays Jamal’s menacing brother, Jatemme – are equally impactful in their roles.
Another character worth mentioning is the city of Chicago. By moving the story from ’80s London (from the TV show) to contemporary Chicago, McQueen and Flynn are able to explore political and societal turmoil in a city that is no stranger to crime, corruption, and bureaucratic chicanery. There’s a level of authenticity to McQueen’s film that would be lacking had the filmmaker opted to cheat Chicago and shoot in Atlanta or another city instead. From the 18th Ward to the historic neighborhood of Kenwood, the Windy City feels like a living, breathing part of the film and gives color to each character and their motivations. In a city known for notorious gangsters like Al Capone and John Dillinger, McQueen weaves a kind of Tale of Two Cities story about thieves aspiring to be politicians who themselves aspire to be gangsters.
Just as entertaining as it is intellectual, Widows delivers wit, propulsive escapism, and thought-provoking drama by the truckload. See it for its searing performances and the dynamic visuals conjured by McQueen, with his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (of Queen of Katwe, 12 Years a Slave), and editor Joe Walker (of Arrival, Blade Runner 2049). McQueen’s latest is proof that a filmmaker with a sharp eye and a confident voice cannot only bend a genre’s tropes to suit their style but enhance the genre as a whole in the process.