Subversive filmmaker Steve McQueen has elevated the heist movie. With its taut thrills and razor sharp filmmaking, Widows isn’t your traditional heist story. McQueen has assembled an incredible cast to tell a story that is rich in emotional power. Breaking away from the themes of his Oscar winning 12 Years A Slave and even a film like Hunger, Widows is a welcome diversion for Mr. McQueen. Not nearly as emotionally draining as the aforementioned films, McQueen still manages to skillfully place political and social subtext within the film.
Widows follows Veronica (Viola Davis), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez). The three women have lost their husbands in a robbery gone wrong. Pressured by crime boss and alderman candidate Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) to repay the debts of their husbands, the widows decide to pull off a job to pay them. Along the way, they are joined by Belle (Cynthia Erivo) and together they put a plan in place. All three women give stellar performances but the stand out here is Debicki Alice is perhaps the most layered character of the three widows. Pressured by her overbearing mother (Jacki Weaver) to essentially be a prostitute for rich men, Alice also deals with the scars of her late husband in a mental, financial and as implied, physical ways
The cast is one of the best ensembles of recent memory. Joining the women are Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson, John Bernthal, Carrie Coon and Weaver. All of them stand out, and McQueen gives each character room to breathe. Kaluuya is a terrifying as Jamal’s brother and enforcer. When he is on screen, Kaluuya is a such a force, and a menacing presence. Farrell and Duvall are also fantastic as a father and son who’s generational gap skews their political motivations. It is also a welcome change of pace for Neeson, who has found a niche in overly serious action vehicles to play a more nuanced character in a much better film.
McQueen deftly balances every key detail in the film, and there are a lot. He weaves in a political drama as Colin Farrell’s Jack Mulligan battles for alderman against Jamal. There is racial subtext with Tom Mulligan (Duvall) the racist father of Jack and long time Chicago politician. McQueen weaves all of this in while never losing focus of the title widows and manages to connect everything in a fresh and utterly compelling story. There is tension around every corner, and McQueen never lets you settle in to the moment without drawing you to the edge of your seat. He relies on his dialogue to create the tension, and Hans Zimmer’s score is affecting and never intrusive. McQueen’s choice to use quiet moments to create tension over bombastic action sequences is a welcome choice, and elevates Widows above your typical heist picture.
Everything in the film, even down to the way McQueen and director of photography Sean Bobbitt use the camera is carefully thought out. This includes a brilliant shot where the camera, placed on the hood of a car, captures the transition from poor, rundown communities in modern Chicago to the suburbs with its lavish and well kept homes. As we watch the homes get progressively nicer, and Mulligan and his aide leave a poor neighborhood, the two discuss how they’re going to win African-American votes. The two arrive at a the gated and overly secure home of Mulligan. However, we never see them talking. Their characters are blind to the separation of class and the poverty that is just mere blocks away, but the viewer isn’t.
Widows is a twisty, unpredictable film that by the end, you’re glad you took the trip. It’s one of the years best, and most engrossing films. As a blockbuster heist movie disguised as an indie drama, this is smart filmmaking. Fans of the genre expecting an action packed thrill ride will likely be disappointed. However, McQueen’s sensibilities and approach help to shape an atmospheric thriller that places another terrific notch in the belt of an already accomplished filmmaker.