“Widows” is a heist film directed by Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) from a script he co-wrote with Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) starring Viola Davis as the widow of a thief (Liam Neeson) who opts to pull off an elaborate heist in order to pay off her late husband’s debt to a crime boss.
McQueen made the film with his “12 Years” collaborators, including composer Hans Zimmer. And he gave Davis a superb ensemble of supporting actors that includes Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Brian Tyree Henry and Colin Farrell.
It’s rare that a movie sounds this good on paper. It’s rarer still when one delivers on its promise.
It is extremely uncommon for a popcorn movie to be made with this level of care, craft and intelligence. Every aspect of the filmmaking is superb. Every performance brings something to the table.
The script delivers on all the heist movie elements (shootouts, car chases, double-crosses), but has plenty more to offer, too. This is one of those genre movies that sneaks a bunch of substantive threads into its entertainment. In this case, it’s themes about capitalism, racism, our broken institutions.
At the heart of “Widows” is a bone-deep cynicism about the current power structures. In this world, even the idealists are hopelessly compromised. With a system this rigged against them, four women decide that the only way to win is to cheat the cheaters.
“Widows” begins with a botched robbery. Harry (Neeson) and his crew have stolen $2 million from Chicago crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). The crew’s van explodes in a shootout, killing all the men and burning up all the cash with them.
Manning planned to use that money to finance his electoral campaign for alderman of a South Side ward. He gives Harry’s widow, Veronica (Davis), a choice: get him $2 million in a month — or else.
Veronica doesn’t want to see what the “else” is, so she enlists the help of the other widows of her husband’s crew to pull off a job Harry outlined in his little book of heist plans. None of the women have met before; none of them have much, if any, experience in crime. But each of them are just desperate enough to do something this crazy.
The widows include Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki); a fourth widow (played by Carrie Coon) opts out of the plan, so Linda enlists the help of her babysitter, Belle (Cynthia Erivo), as their getaway driver.
They don’t really know what they’re doing, at least at first. But they’re smart and motivated, and they have the element of surprise working for them. As Veronica says: “No one thinks we have the balls to do this.”
The heist plot runs alongside the doings of a shady pair of politicians, father and son Tom and Jack Mulligan (Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell). The younger Mulligan had dealings with Veronica’s husband, and as the film progresses, the political and crime plots converge.
What’s most miraculous about “Widows” is just how much it manages to fit in in a little over two hours, and without it feeling overstuffed or too busy. The film is based on a British miniseries from the ’80s, and it could have easily been remade in a much longer form. But McQueen and Flynn have approached everything with a brutal efficiency. It’s an impressive feat of storytelling.
We get the heist. We get short but powerful portraits of each of these women: their grief, their pasts, their hopes for better lives. We get a fascinating dive into the corrupt machinations of a Chicago alderman race. We get so many wonderful little details: like our widows obtaining guns, blueprints and the escape van; or Veronica dropping off her beloved Westie at a prestigious doggy daycare the night of the heist.
And all the pieces fit together perfectly. And all the elements of the outlandish premise are made credible by the great writing and performances. It’s a testament to the skill on display that even the film’s jawdropper twists feel credible.
The cast is so good (and so perfectly cast) that it’s hard to isolate the standouts, but I’ll try anyway.
Davis is terrific, obviously, as a woman who is, as the film’s tagline reads: “Left with nothing, capable of anything.”
But two performers steal the movie from her.
The first is Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out” star and recent Oscar nominee. Here, he plays a psychopathic mob enforcer, and one whose menace, professionalism and joy he takes in his work are at once terrifying and darkly funny.
The second performer, the movie’s MVP, is Debicki as Alice. The Australian actress plays a woman who was knocked around by her mother, then knocked around by her husband, who has been written off as stupid and worthless by everyone in her life.
But once she joins the heist, she proves the most ingenious and valuable member of the crew. Her confidence gradually grows, and she realizes that she finally has the tools to set the terms for her life.
Later in the film — in a scene that represents the whole movie in miniature — someone hits Alice, and she hits them back harder. She’s not going to be treated that way anymore.