A six cylinder blockbuster heist movie centered around female empowerment may seem like a misstep for indie-powerhouse Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years A Slave), but Widows is eons away from its surface-level action-driven genre-parallel, Oceans 8. McQueen, teaming up with hit-writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects) with source material from a 1983 British TV drama, has created a tightly-zipped thriller that is bursting at the seams with complex characters and sociopolitical commentary. McQueen—the Brit that he is—has once again exposed the beating heart of America in all of its corrupted glory. Widows is a film in-and-of 2018, packaged in blockbuster boldness that is sure to fill theaters across the political terrain.
Viola Davis plays Veronica, a retired teacher and union delegate, newly widowed after her career criminal husband (Liam Neeson) goes up in flames with his crew in the film’s heist-gone-wrong opening scene. It doesn’t take long for Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a crime boss now running for alderman of Chicago’s 18th ward, to show up at Veronica’s penthouse demanding she repay her husband’s theft. In a move that at first seems absurd, and grows increasingly less so as the movie progresses, Veronica propositions the other widows of the crime crew to finish one last job she discovered her husband was prepping for when she gets access to his safety deposit box.
The build-up to this last heist constitutes the main plot of the film, yet McQueen gives the backdrop of Chicago its own revolving world of complexity. There is Manning, attempting to beat out old-time money Mulligan (Colin Farrell) to become the first African-American alderman of his primarily black district, who sends his thug brother (a haunting Daniel Kaluuya, playing the opposite of his Get Out submission) to do his dirty deeds. Mulligan’s own campaign is embedded with the inherited corruption of his aging and deeply racist politician father (Robert Duvall), and he makes little to no effort to hide the kickbacks he takes from the female small business owners he claims to have helped. What makes the Chicago of Widows rise above its loud political commentary is the complexity of even these minor character’s motivations. The bad guys are bad for a reason, and the good guys have to get worse. When Mulligan tells Veronica “in this city you reap what you sow,” Veronica’s response of “I hope so” lands on purposefully uneven footing.
Although the success of Widows emerges from the cacophony of its on and off-screen talents, Viola Davis solidifies her propensity to take center-stage. As Veronica, she is the concrete foundation that all of the other players build upon, and it will be shocking if this role does not get her another Oscar on her shelf. Elizabeth Debicki gives a breakout performance as the widow Alice, the only playful reprieve in the film, who begins as a cowering housewife shielding the bruise of her most recent encounter with domestic abuse and is, by the end, transformed into the most propitious member of Veronica’s crew.
Despite its blockbuster skin, Widows has all of the bones of McQueen’s arthouse style. The genre typical revenge and greed-fueled heist-film character motivations have been replaced with McQueen’s staples of grief, misery, and desperation. The relatively sober amount of money the women stand to gain from the success of the heist speaks more to their desire to just get by in America then it does to any heroic ambitions.
Although McQueen’s cinematic formalism has been toned down, almost every scene’s framing and use of color are worthy of attention. Viewers who relish McQueen’s signature long takes will see the technique on display only once here, utilized to its highest potential. Colin Farrell’s Mulligan has just finished a flashy display of his community-centric facade, abandoning his constituents to hop into his limo and be carried to the other end of his ward, where his historic mansion awaits. Rather than stay in the limo with Mulligan, McQueen chooses to keep the stationary camera outside of the car, focusing instead on the exterior glass of the windshield that projects rolling reflections of the dilapidated 18th ward. As the limo makes its way across town towards where Mulligan lives, we watch as the neighborhood slowly changes, the voice of Mulligan ranting about racial tensions and his own petty desires in the background. What stands out is not the increasing wealth that grows around Mulligan’s discontent, but the short moments of shadow: when the car drives under a tree and we see the stoic man driving the car instead of the reflective neighborhood light that was blocking him out. This man, and people like him, is the real focal point, McQueen quietly suggests.