Steve McQueen, the critically acclaimed director of 12 Years a Slave, Shame, and Hunger, has once again proven himself to be a masterful filmmaker. Widows is a suspenseful heist thriller that will leave you gasping for air; the tension sucks all of the oxygen out of the theater and refuses to ease up. But while the heist and crime aspect of the film is handled well, showing McQueen is capable of navigating multiple genres in his career, Widows proves itself to be about much more. It’s an exciting and violent take on the effects of grief, corrupt politicians and unfair elections, and the differing lives of people in separate social classes. It’s a triumph, rounded out by an insanely capable cast and expert direction.
When a group of criminals are all killed after a job gone wrong, their prize is burned up along with them. Crime boss and upcoming politician Jamal Manning (Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry) wants his two million dollars back, and so he threatens the wife of the leader behind the operation, Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis). Unable to pay him back, Veronica has no other choice but to enlist the help of the other men’s wives, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), to pull off their husbands’ last job and make out with enough cash to start new lives. Standing in their way is Jatemme (a terrifying Daniel Kaluuya), Jamal’s murderous brother, and Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), a politician whose family has run this part of Chicago for decades and who gets mixed up with the widows’ plans.
I could write an entire review simply praising the performances; every single one is spectacular. Viola Davis commands the entire film – she is electrifying. Stricken by grief over the loss of her husband, she goes through the runtime with a permanent scowl, filled with both anger and sorrow. She is the only one who immediately understands what’s at stake and what needs to be done, and she makes it happen. It’s great to see Michelle Rodriguez finally play someone vulnerable again; this is her best role in years, and Debicki plays Alice at the start like a lost lamb, only to surprise you with reserved strength and ambition. Each of the widows become more than they appear at first, as Veronica tells them, “You need to be smarter than you are right now.” They manage to pull off things that even they didn’t think they were ever capable of, and you cheer on their victories no matter how small.
There’s a lot that sets Widows apart from other heist films. First and foremost, the heist itself is kept brief, being both the centerpiece of the film but also not being the focus. Jamal gives Veronica one month to get his money, and the ticking clock for the women to prepare, plan out, and pull off the job gives the movie an extreme sense of urgency. None of these women were ever involved in their husbands’ line of work, and so much has to be learned in such a short span of time. Add to the fact that Jatemme is making his way through Veronica’s contacts, maiming them as he goes, and the suspense is bound to make anyone anxious. The women’s desire to pull off this heist is simply for survival: none of them are looking for a thrill or a desire to get rich quick, they need the cash to not get killed.
It’s tremendous popcorn entertainment, but it also has a lot to say about the United States of America and where it stands today. Widows goes all in on topics such as class division, police brutality, the unjust killings of black men, sexism, racism, and even a dig at the ease of getting your hands on a gun in this country. The setting of Chicago is no accident, and the political battle between Jamal Manning and Jack Manning is for the very soul of the ward they’d be representing. In the most poignant of Widows’ scenes, Jack holds a rally at a run-down part of town, occupied almost exclusively by black people. Afterwards, he gets in the car, and we’re treated to a shot of just the outside of the vehicle as it drives back to Jack’s home. Jack talks about his frustrations with his position as the drive goes from the poor and abandoned neighborhoods to the large, beautiful, rich side of town that he resides in. The distinct separation of the classes and in turn, the races, is shown in a fascinating visual way. This is also told through the conflicts between Veronica, who still has a good amount of her husband’s money, and the other widows, who are left with nothing.
Widows can be a bit of a slow burn, especially in its first half, but once the ball starts rolling, there’s no stopping it. If you’re looking for the guns, the shootouts, the car chases, and the explosions, you’ll be satisfied. If you’re looking for a more complex and layered drama, you’ll get that too. It’s an exciting heist film that’s not about the heist, and that is precisely what makes it transcend the genre. It’s full of suspense, shocking twists (one in particular made my entire audience gasp out loud), and outstanding performances from the entire cast. It should not be missed.
Widows is an exciting and suspenseful heist thriller that proves itself to be about much more than just the heist itself. It’s a stinging social commentary on modern-day America that is backed by powerful performances.