Widows review

Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn team for Widows, an exciting, brilliantly-acted thriller about a team of desperate women pushed to desperate measures. A heist film with a lot more on its mind than meets the eye, Widows is a gem.

Widows could’ve easily been a piece of mindless pop. A riff on every single heist film ever made, but with a female twist. But in the hands of Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn, it’s so much more. Yes, this is a movie about a group of women pulling off a heist. But it’s also about so much more – race issues, gender issues, grief, and regret. It’s a slow fuse burning towards a block-leveling blast, and it’s about to go off.

A crew of crooks, led by career criminal Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson), is in the midst of a big job when everything goes to shit. After a shootout with police, the entire gang is killed in a scene raining bullets and fire. Harry’s wife, Veronica (Viola Davis), is wrought with grief over the loss of her husband – a grief made all the more harsh by the fact that she and Harry previously lost a child – a son mindlessly gunned down by cops for being a black kid driving an expensive car.

Veronica’s problems are just beginning. Harry and his gang died ripping off Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a dangerous criminal who is also running for alderman in a district in Chicago. Manning’s money went up in smoke during the robbery, and he wants it back, by any means necessary. This means pressuring Veronica to find a way to gather the dough – or else.

With no one left to turn to, Veronica puts together a wild plan: she’ll round up the widows of the men from Harry’s crew, and pull off one big job to settle the score. The widows include Alice (Elizabeth Debicki, who towers over everyone in the film and yet plays one of the frailest characters), a downtrodden woman stuck living with her cruel, abusive mother (Jacki Weaver), and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez, a bit underused), a mother of two who finds her business repossessed due to her now-dead husband’s debts. All these women are desperate, and when people are desperate, they’ll do anything.

widows tiff

All the pieces are here for your standard heist flick, but director McQueen isn’t interested in going there. At least not right away. Instead, he zeroes in on each character, introducing us to their own private worlds. Alice starts up a job as a high-priced escort, and becomes the exclusive client of a wealthy businessman (Lukas Haas). Linda finds herself blamed for her husband’s death by her mother-in-law. Along the way, the widows pick up a new team member: Belle (Cynthia Erivo, stealing every scene she’s in while showcasing some killer biceps), a hairdresser and single mom who is fast as lightning and willing to be their getaway driver.

And then there’s Jamal Manning. Henry is great as the subtly menacing figure, who is no mere stock movie villain. We get to see the inside of his campaign as he strives to win an election against Tom Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who is as equally corrupt, but in different ways. Jamal works side-by-side with his violent, creepy brother Jatemme Manning (Daniel Kaluuya, doing so much with so little – he lets his scary silent glances do a lot of the heavy lifting).

McQueen, a consummate stylist, brings a keen eye to these proceedings. He’s fond of getting up and close on Davis’ face, and who can blame him – the actress is a powerhouse, and while her character is frequently cold and no-nonsense, we feel like we get to know her through Davis’ work here. McQueen also plays around with form – a lengthy conversation is staged without even showing the two people conversing; instead, we just see the car they’re in driving out of one low-rent neighborhood to an affluent spot a few blocks away. All of this is aided by Hans Zimmer’s churning, ominous score. 

The early section of the film, full of set-up and planning, is superb, but it’s the film’s finale that allows McQueen to pull out all the stops. Watching the women work to set their heist in motion is fun, god damn it, and McQueen knows it. Sure, their task is potentially deadly, but there’s something thrilling about watching a well-orchestrated plan come together.

While some of the dialogue is a bit clunky – Davis comes pretty close to saying something the equivalent to “There’s no crying in robbery!” – Widows thrives through its tight plotting. McQueen and Flynn’s script might be accused by some of hinging on melodrama, and there’s a big twist partway through the flick that might be a bit unnecessary. And yet, these elements are strengths, not weaknesses. The melodrama makes the story feel somehow more personal; more emotional. We’re caught up in the lives of these women. And sure, the twist is a bit silly, but it leads to one of the most satisfying, empowering scenes in the film. 

Flashy but never showy, violent but never brutal, emotional but never overblown, Widows is truly special. Watching McQueen work with this fiercely talented group of women makes for some of the most entertaining film viewing you’re likely to experience all year.

/Film rating: 8 out of 10

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About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a staff writer for /Film. He's contributed to CutPrintFilm, RogerEbert.com, Nerdist, Mashable, and more. Follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 or email him at chris@chrisevangelista.net