Widows is the rarest of major studio films, a strictly adult-oriented thriller with very little in the way of pomp and circumstance, directed by Steve McQueen with attention to performance over plot. It’s a showcase for an incredible, and incredibly deep, roster of acting greatness. While it may not carry that intensity all the way through to the flat conclusion, the means to which we reach this end are worth the time.
Based on a British miniseries from the mid ’80s, Widows begins with a heist gone horribly awry on the streets of Chicago. The four thieves – led by Liam Neeson’s Harry – are killed in a fiery shootout, and the money they stole disintegrates right along with them. The missing money belongs to a wannabe city councilman Jamal Manning (Atlanta‘s Brian Tyree Henry) and his murderous brother, Jatemme, played by Daniel Kaluuya with brilliant, eerie menace. The Manning’s need the money, and have transferred the debt over to the wives of the dead thieves, namely Veronica, Harry’s widow.
Viola Davis plays Veronica, and flashes every ounce of that recognizable Viola Davis intensity in moments big and small. Veronica has no friends, she owns nothing in the home she shared with Harry, and tragedy has followed her lately. She is shut off from the rest of the world, but she kicks into gear when her life is threatened. This means bringing in two of the other widows to help her steal five million dollars: the aloof Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and the world-weary Linda (Michelle Rodriguez).
The machinations of the heist the women need to plan takes a backseat to some tremendous character building through the meat of the picture. Aside from the situation these women find themselves in, a subplot involving a smarmy politician (and Jamal Manning’s competition) named Jack Mulligan – played by Colin Farrell, who can so easily slip into this role – and his racist father, played by Robert Duvall, expands the breadth of McQueen’s film. While the tension of the necessary heist builds, and Kaluuya’s murderous Jatemme closes in, McQueen takes the time to show us the corruption of city politics. In one extended, unbroken shot, he gives us a glimpse in the disparity between city officials and the constituents for which they claim to work, simply by mounting a camera on the hood of a car.
Despite the sprawl of McQueen’s story – which clearly feels at times like an abbreviated mini series – Widows never loses focus, and the actors are all fully engaged to a point where their dedication to the story is palpable. Viola Davis does her thing, but there are great performances big and small all over the screen.
There are twists and turns along the way, but the ending fizzles when it should pop. That isn’t as detrimental to the overall experience, however, as McQueen crafts an endlessly engaging and compelling story surrounding characters we care about in a film where characters are so often thrown into heist films to move the plot forward. Widows is unique these days as a thriller aimed strictly at adults; for that alone, it should be praised.