“Widows,” in theaters.
Much of “Widows,” director Steve McQueen’s latest release, has to do with lines. What lines are the characters willing to cross to survive, to get money or to secure power. Turning a blind eye to what is happening around you is not enough. You’re going to need help from all sides and that help may not be in the class, color or gender you would expect. Given that this is McQueen’s first popcorn movie, “Widows” is nothing like what you would think of a typical heist movie, and it’s all for the better.
When their criminal husbands are killed on the job, the wives are left behind picking up the pieces. The women looked away from the gunshots and the stolen goods and enjoyed the small pleasures their husbands’ wrongdoings brought. Veronica (Viola Davis) enjoys living in a high-rise with her Westie, Olivia, outside of Chicago’s violent elements as her husband, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), is the ringleader of a gang of thieves. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) tries to hang on to her dress/quinceañera shop, but Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) gambles it away. And Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), without any skills or value of her own, is left with the black eye her spouse, Florek (Jon Bernthal), gave her.
Alone in their grief, the women face another threat – their husbands ripped off the wrong guy, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who wants to be the first black alderman to represent the 18th ward. The political seat representing a mostly African-American population had been held for generations by an Irish-American family, with Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) next in line for the post. Jamal’s strong arm is his brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), an aggressive loose cannon. With the Mannings demanding $2 million from Veronica and the hot political climate, the women band together to perform Harry’s last job, going into the life of crime they were once blind to.
Teaming up with author/screenwriter Gillian Flynn, McQueen adapts the 1983 British miniseries of his youth into a two-hour snowglobe of the Windy City. He condenses everything from its violent reputation to its civic corruption and shakes it until the snowflakes land at the bottom. Veronica, Linda and Alice bring their backgrounds as sheltered women and become cinema’s most unlikely team of powerful women. Their time of mourning is short, and they don’t sit around waiting for someone to rescue them. While McQueen has made great female portraits before with Carey Mulligan in “Shame” and Lupita Nygong’o in “12 Years a Slave,” this is his first time placing women in the forefront. And what makes this unique that the trio, along with Cynthia Ervio as Belle, a late member of their girl gang, is that they are empowered through intersectional feminism – women of different races and personalities joining together to survive the toxic men who wish to destroy them. Their strengths are not exploited, they’re amplified.
As for the men, they are not cardboard, cartoonish characters that are just misogynists. Their layers of destructive thinking multiplies throughout the film. Jamal and Jack’s political feud and their lawbreaking are in open view, but no one does anything about it. Corruption in Chicago is so ingrained in this world that it’s in every air particle. Simple car ride through the 18th ward, where Jack is leaving from a campaign stop in a poor neighborhood to his mansion at the edge of the ward, sums up how much power means to Jack but not the ward.
While this is McQueen’s most commercial offering, it still has many of his recurring elements. Frequent cinematographer Sean Bobbitt accomplishes much in the tight shots throughout the film, including the fantastic car scene and the heist. While there is usually a philosophical exchange between conflicting characters in his films, a trimmed version was reserved for Jack and his old-school politician/father Tom (Robert Duvall).
Davis brings her usual command of the scene to “Widows,’ finally finding a team that can execute a task and clean up their mistakes, unlike that crew of misfit law students on “How to Get Away with Murder.” Debicki gives a performance that is the opposite of the terrifying role she had in HBO’s “The Tale” earlier this year, showing her range as a supporting actress in this role. But the biggest surprise in this large ensemble of good actors is Kaluuya. In a short amount of screen time, Kaluuya’s sinister henchman commands every scene he is in, showing that his performances in “Get Out,” “Black Panther” and “Sicario” aren’t small wonders. “Widows” also shows that McQueen is comfortable with a large cast as he is with small ones like “Hunger” and “Shame” with frequent collaborator Michael Fassbender.
Perhaps the biggest casting flaw is having Duvall and Farrell as father and son. Farrell’s accent is closer to his native Ireland than to being a sixth-generation Irish-American in Chicago. The pace of “Widows” is also very fast. With some many characters connected with each other, it was hard to keep up with some of the plot points.
“Widows” shows McQueen’s confidence in his craft and his ability to do bigger projects. It presents a different approach to heist films that should appear in other similar movies to come.
Four stars out of five.