Film

Review: Steve McQueen’s Chicago-set Widows Is a Complex, Layered Ensemble Work

Widows is about a great many things, only one of which is a group of women, all of whom have lost their husbands during the commission of a joint robbery gone horribly wrong. Directed by Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame), the film also takes deep dives into themes of loyalty, class, politics, corruption, power and the danger of underestimating people. And it does so in the context of a wicked, take-no-prisoners, often shocking story in which nearly everyone is guilty of something. It’s also a helluva heist movie, making it a dense but completely satisfying experience.

Widows

Image courtesy of Chicago International Film Festival

Based on a 1983 British mini-series (adapted by McQueen and Gone Girl/Sharp Objects author Gillian Flynn), Widows kicks off with a crime that might not even be a crime. Master thief Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and a small team manage to rip off the war chest of criminal kingpin Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who was going to use the several million dollars to go legit and fund an aldermanic campaign in Chicago, where the film is set. He’s racing against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), whose father (Robert Duvall) is stepping down from the position due to his age and health. The position is something of a family legacy, and the fact that a black man now wants the job of being the alderman of a mostly black neighborhood seems shocking to the Mulligans.

So what does this have to do with the titular widows? When the robbery goes wrong and the cash burns up in an explosion (along with the robbers), Manning and his sinister brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) come after Harry’s wife Veronica (Viola Davis) for the missing money. With no way to get hold of so much cash, Veronica sifts through Harry’s notebooks, where he often would write out detailed plans for decades worth of jobs. There, she finds one that appears to be what would have been his next job. She contacts the widows of the other men in Harry’s crew to see if they want to help her carry out the heist (convincing them that Manning will come after them next when Veronica fails to produce the money), and two of them, Linda and Alice (Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki), agree.

Widows may seems like director McQueen is slumming it after such harrowing, powerful dramas in his filmography, but he isn’t as interested in the heist as he is in the lives of these women, whose lives without their husbands are fully explored during the course of the film. He and Flynn find ways to bring seemingly superfluous details about their individual struggles into the main story. For example, Alice is forced to become a full-time “companion” for a rich building developer (Lukas Haas), and through their quite often interesting conversations, he’s able to look at blueprints of the next target and identify the location for them. But the complexities of their relationship are explored outside of the crime, and could have been their own completely separate dramatic film.

At a certain point in the story, the three women realize they need a driver for their job, and one of them brings Belle (Cynthia Erivo, recently seen in Bad Times at the El Royale). She is no one to mess with either, and right about the time she enters the film, the reality of what they are about to attempt sets in and tensions begin to rise. These women were not friends before their husbands were killed, so a big part of the movie is them navigating around each other, getting to know how the others think, and what the buttons are that shouldn’t be pushed. It’s fascinating and exciting to watch these terrific actors just move in the same space and finally get to a place of trust and common ground.

Along the way, genuinely shocking surprises are peppered throughout, and really cool supporting players come in for a scene or two and add to the excitement, including the likes of Carrie Coon as another widow who opts not to join the heist; Jacki Weaver as Alice’s truly horrible mother; Kevin J. O’Connor as an old friend of Harry’s from whom Veronica seeks advice; Garret Dillahunt as Harry’s driver, who is so lost when Harry dies that he offers to keep working for Veronica for free just to still be (symbolically, at least) part of the family; and Jon Michael Hill (Steppenwolf’s Pass Over) as Reverend Wheeler, the ward’s biggest religious leader who both candidates need to give their campaigns a boost.

Widows isn’t set in Chicago by accident, and it’s clear that McQueen and Flynn see it as a place where political corruption is the price of getting things done. Neither candidate is ideal, and both will do anything to get elected, but there is a nobility in what they actually want to get accomplished in this transitional party of the city. Everything in the film is connected masterfully and every character is sketched using rich details and a lack of stereotypes (with the one exception perhaps being Duvall, whose character name might as well be “Angry Old Racist”). It’s a genuine pleasure watching all of these talents work together in various combinations, moving through this layered, well-structured story. Widows is easily one of the best films of the year, and it might have the finest ensemble work I’ve seen in many years. Most importantly, I’m desperate to see it again.

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