Widows wastes no time letting you know what you’re about to watch. After the light-saturated idyll of lovers in bed, there is a smash cut to chaotic, desperate violence. The immersion is total and complete. Steve McQueen’s follow-up to 12 Years a Slave has all the hallmarks of a thriller: chases, explosions, shoot-outs, gangsters, twists, and double-crosses. But McQueen, along with his co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn, mostly opted for a film that unfolds like an anti-thriller. Personalities, corruption, and drama interest them more than action or suspense. They expect you to keep up with the dense plotting, so this film is more cerebral, even challenging, than typical mainstream entertainment.
Liam Neeson plays Harry, a talented leader of thieves, except his latest job goes awry. Ambushed and cornered, the police kill Harry along with his three accomplices. Harry’s wife Veronica (Viola Davis) is reeling from the loss – the script never quite says how much she knew about his activities – and she receives an unwelcome visitor during his funeral: Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry) is a career criminal who is running for office, and Harry stole $2 million from him. She has one month to raise the money, and if she’s late, Jamal does not have to hint at the consequences. Luckily, Veronica discovers Harry’s notebook, and it contains all she needs for a heist – except for a crew – so she reaches out to the widows of Harry’s accomplices. Her offer is simple and brutal: help her with “one last job,” or face Jamal’s wrath.
What is crazy about Widows is how the above is only small thread in a complex, dizzying web. I have mentioned only a fraction of the important characters. There is Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), a corrupt politician who is Jamal’s rival. The other widows (Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, and Carrie Coon) all have tough, demeaning struggles of their own. I should also mention that Widows takes place in Chicago, with Flynn and McQueen filling the frame with a plausible canvas of opulence, detail, and urban decay. In more ways than one, Widows recalls the ambition of The Wire, albeit in a much tighter running time. That show and this film do not observe criminals, cops, politicians, and civilians in isolation. They’re all bumping against each other, and they share a (justified) claim to the same limited resources.
What makes this labyrinthine story so compelling is McQueen’s unconventional approach to direction and storytelling. Like his previous films, he does not frame sequences in a traditional way, and instead finds the angle to best convey the information/emotion he wants (sometimes literally). There is a striking example of this early in the film: after a disastrous rally, Mulligan hops into a car, and whines about his chances while his chauffeur takes him home. Most filmmakers would place the camera in the backseat so we could watch Mulligan excoriate his underling. McQueen, on the other hand, keeps the camera outside the car, hanging off the side mirror, so we can see the boarded-up storefronts transition into the mansions where someone he is at ease. The scene is like a crash course in gentrification, and all it took was an off-kilter camera angle.
Despite a rich background and formal daring, the dynamics between Veronica and her unlikely crew is where the film finds its pumping heart. We spend ample time with all these women, developing a sense for why they turn to crime. None of them are thrill-seekers. Instead, they are angry, desperate, and tired of feeling second-class. There is a feminist streak to Widows, and it is borne out of the idea that self-determination – by any means necessary – is the only step toward true equality. What furthers that idea is the terse dialogue they share: Flynn does not offer the usual “honor among thieves” platitudes, so Veronica and the others only develop trust through subtext and mutual need. By the time the heist is underway, we don’t need training montages to know they are competent thieves. It is because we understand these women, and what it means to have no other choice.
Viola Davis is at her best when she is vulnerable or ferocious, and in Widows she has plenty of opportunities to be both. Her arc is deeply satisfying – at the screening I attended, some of her choices inspired spontaneous applause – to the point that she earns a final emotional note that would be incongruous in the hands of a lesser actor. While the ensemble is great, easing to their roles with seemingly effortless naturalism, there are two players who elevate the material. Daniel Kaluuya, fresh off his Oscar nomination in Get Out, plays Jamal’s deranged brother Jatemme. Kaluuya slinks through the frame, intimidating people through silence or a tough look, and many of his scenes have a delicious, macabre logic to them. The other standout is Debecki, who transitions from a helpless ingénue to a shrewd, manipulative thief. She is also a striking actress (she stands at six foot three), and McQueen frames her so that she starts off small, only to command more space. Even without the director’s assist, the entire cast subverts the comfortable archetypes they play.
If discussions of gerrymandering and the church’s influence over city politics were not enough, McQueen and Flynn add other political undercurrents throughout their film. There is a tough, brutal flashback where Obama’s “Hope” poster underscores the state of modern systemic racism. Robert Duvall plays Colin Farrell’s father, and their dynamic echoes several American political dynasties from the twentieth century. Still, all these disparate elements coalesce around one central idea: no matter how protected we might feel, our bodies are equally vulnerable in a country that sneers at humanity. It is downright miraculous that McQueen and Flynn explore such themes in a film that is also suspenseful, smart, and funny when it needs to be. Widows may be a tough film, but maybe we’re all a bit tougher nowadays. This film knows we are up for it.