Director Steve McQueen’s Widows is like Ocean’s 8 for grownups. It sets us up to expect a standard—albeit stylish—heist melodrama. And it delivers that right enough, along with more than we bargained for.
We meet the title characters in the last moments of their marriages, unwitting widows in the making. We see Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his wife Veronica (Viola Davis) hungrily clasping each other in bed in the morning. Then Harry’s in the shower, getting ready to head out to work.
Next are Alice and Florek (Elizabeth Debicki, Jon Bernthal), Linda and Carlos (Michelle Rodriguez, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). We watch as the men leave their wives—in Alice’s case, with a black eye—to join Harry on the job.
“The job” is a robbery, masterminded by Harry. And it goes wrong. After a violent pursuit, they are cornered by the Chicago police. There’s a shootout, an explosion and fire, and all three men are burned beyond recognition, their huge haul of cash reduced to ashes.
Veronica is still grieving when she gets a visit from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a rising politician and gang lord who is, as one character will later say, “somebody you don’t wanna fuck with.” Manning is running for city alderman, and Harry stole his campaign treasury. Two million dollars, up in smoke. Now Manning wants his money back. He’ll give Veronica a month.
With an ingenuity born of desperation, Veronica turns to the only thing Harry left her—a notebook detailing plans for a robbery he never got around to committing. It should be good for five million, enough to pay off Manning and his psycho brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya, in a blood-curdling performance) with a good sum left over. But she can’t do it alone. That’s why she turns to her fellow widows Alice and Linda, whom she’s never met.
Intertwined in this story is Manning’s political campaign, and his opponent Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the incumbent alderman whose seat has been in his family for 60 years, handed down to Jack by his bigoted, foul-mouthed father Tom (Robert Duvall).
This is Chicago, after all, and we shouldn’t blink at crime and politics being intertwined. It all comes together in Widows, in a story so quintessentially American that it’s startling to learn that the script was adapted by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) from a 1980s British TV miniseries (McQueen was reportedly a big fan as a teenager in London).
Davis’ powerhouse presence is complemented by her partners in crime. Rodriguez adds a layer of wounded vulnerability to the tough-chick persona she brings from the Fast and Furious franchise, and the tall, willowy Debicki offers a starmaking turn as Alice, sliding into an “escort” lifestyle at the urging of her venal, dimwitted mother (Jacki Weaver). Rounding out the partnership is Cynthia Erivo as Belle, the group’s getaway driver.
Widows has the stylish fun of a good heist picture, but thickened and enhanced by a real-world desperation with which McQueen and Flynn lend urgency to the women’s plight. They’re not in this for fun like Danny or Debbie Ocean; for them it’s life-and-death, and they really need the money.