Audiences have gotten used to heist movies being buoyant and comedic, what with the likes of the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy and other caper movies over the decades. Now, Widows shatters all those expectations with a gravely serious heist drama that is less interested in the intricacies of the scheme and far more so in the characters involved in the criminal planning. Directed by Steve McQueen and written with Gillian Flynn, it not only challenges genre conventions, but it burrows deeply into the psychological effects of criminality. It makes for a challenging film, defying expectations and asking its audience to become more emotionally involved with its characters.
McQueen lets us know things are going to be different right off the bat as he cross-cuts between two wildly different scenes. In the first, Veronica (Viola Davis) and her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) kiss and coo during their morning routine. In the second, we see the mysterious man and his crew fleeing from a building. It turns out they’ve just robbed it and the police are in hot pursuit. The world of calm that Veronica has known will soon be usurped forever when those two worlds collide. She not only finds out the whole truth of her husband’s profession, but he and his den of thieves are all killed in a shoot-out with Chicago cops.
Veronica also discovers that Harry stole the money from a drug kingpin named Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). He wants the 2 million dollars stolen to use in his race for alderman against favorite son candidate Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell). Mulligan has oodles of cash as he’s on the take. Veronica barely has time to grieve before Manning shows up at her apartment, threatens her pet dog, and demands the money in a matter of weeks. She’s a teacher’s union representative, so how is she going to corral that kind of loot? She lives in a nice apartment, but a second mortgage wouldn’t begin to cover the debt. Thankfully, her husband has left her his casebook containing all of his secrets on how to case a joint, break-in, etc. There are even a few places within it that have yet to be robbed. Suddenly, Veronica decides to follow in her husband’s footsteps.
The place she decides to rob just happens to be – you guessed it – Jack Mulligan’s mansion, but the film takes its sweet time in getting to that eventual robbery. Instead, the movie delves deep into the characters of the crew of widows that Veronica calls on to complete their dead husbands’ work. They include working mother Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Polish arm candy Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and new mom Amanda (Carrie Coon). Amanda begs off due to her infant, but the others come around, especially when Veronica figures out that they can steal an additional 3 million from Mulligan that he scammed under the command of his corrupt politico father (Robert Duvall).
The movie spends a great deal of time showcasing the women’s grieving, slowly coming around to trusting each other, and sharing the problems they’re experiencing as they try to move on with their regular lives. All of them are left bereft by their thieving hubbies so they reluctantly must agree to become criminals. Luckily, Linda has a friend in Belle, a hardworking hair stylist, who signs on to drive the getaway vehicle and provide some much-needed muscle in the heist.
Through their bonding together, Alice, in particular, learns to stand up for herself and find her own voice. She allowed her gruff husband to slap her around, but now she’s through being anyone’s doormat. Alice rejects the old school advice of her mother (Jacki Weaver, in a glorious, but brief role) to find a man and take his crap. She even dumps a new suitor (Lukas Haas) when he starts to treat her badly as well. It’s refreshing to see her prevail, let alone all the women bond, grow strong together, and never turn on each other. In these kinds of thrillers, an insider almost always turns out to be a traitor, but none of the women are here.
Instead, the surprise baddie turns out to be quite a shocker. It’s one of the many twists and turns the film pulls off with aplomb. Granted, a bit of foreshadowing might have helped it feel more honest, but the rug pull still packs an incredible wallop. Other surprises keep us guessing too, such the story finding sympathy for some of the villain characters. Just when you’re ready to sneer at every scene Farrell has, his sleazebag becomes pitiable via his abusive relationship under his bullying old man. (Duvall overdoes the role some, but he certainly registers as a mean old bastard.)
All of the actors run with their roles and clearly revel in the time McQueen has given them to play their parts onscreen. He gives them time to show thought process and hesitations, ixnaying the tendency of thrillers to cut to the chases as soon as possible. Debicki warrants Best Supporting Actress consideration for her sublime turn here, and Erivo shines in every scene too. The British singer turned actress has a stunning physical presence and says volumes with her expressive eyes. And who would’ve thought that Daniel Kaluuya could be so wholly menacing in his role as Manning’s younger brother and enforcer? His eyes showed palpable vulnerability in Get Out last year, but here they are absolutely terrifying as they stare down his victims.
McQueen gives his DP Sean Bobbitt plenty of opportunities to shine too. The camerawork in one scene veers from the front left of the car to the front right to showcase the difference between the neighborhood on one side versus the other. And Joe Walker’s editing keeps us constantly off-guard, jumbling the narrative and surprising us with what he cuts too.
At times, there are problems in the telling. Sometimes the story drags, and a late flashback revealing a character’s death at the hands of the police seems at least a reel or two late. The heist is over before you know it, with more time being spent on the aftermath, and the other widows’ husbands get no flashbacks or development. Still, this genre piece is much more than most of its pulpy brethren showing up in movie theaters and it’s refreshing to see such vivid characters, as well as such stinging commentary on racism and sexism on display in a thriller. One just hopes they leave it alone and don’t reunite the ladies for a second scam. Danny Ocean, Veronica is not.
View the trailer of Widows below: