Yes, Steve McQueen’s Widows is a heist film, set in Chicago, with a group of four women plotting and planning their way to a sweep of millions of dollars that would ultimately free each of them from the bondage of bills, debt and neighborhood violence. Yes, it’s a kind of modernized and muted take on F. Gary Gray’s crowd-pleasing Set It Off (1996). Female characters with wildly disparate backgrounds and personalities must band together to attain the one thing they all lack: freedom. But make no mistake. This thoughtful, textured story — though brutal at times — stands as one of the clearest depictions of turmoil, racism and nepotism in local politics that’s ever been drawn onscreen.
In his first feature since 2013’s searing, sun-soaked 12 Years a Slave, McQueen returns to the cool, sterile tones of Shame (2011), his second feature; at the start, he introduces Veronica (Viola Davis) and Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) playfully nuzzling one another in an apartment that appears strikingly similar to the one inhabited in the earlier film by Michael Fassbender’s sex addict. The couple’s lovey-dovey moments prove fleeting, though, just warm enough to make us feel its absence later, when McQueen fractures the timeline. He moves back and forth between Veronica alone in bed and Harry and his team of criminals escaping a heist as a rain of gunfire falls around them. Then a police shootout ends in a furious explosion — all are dead. Mingled in this semi-montage are the introductions to Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Amanda (Carrie Coon), the remaining three widows of the title. Each has a problem beyond the loss of their spouses: Linda’s husband stole all her money; Alice’s ex beat the shit out of her; Amanda is raising a 4-month-old infant. And Veronica, well, even though her real job is leading the Chicago teachers’ union, Harry’s botched heist leaves her with a debt — he stole money from an 18th District gang, and they want it back.
McQueen, working off a Gillian Flynn script, allows every character just enough depth, exactly the right amount of screen time, to plead their case of why it is that they deserve the money. That remains the case as the story gets more complex — more connected to real life — than is typical for the heist genre. It just so happens that the leader of this gang, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), is locked in a heated race to be the next District alderman. He’s attempting to rip power from the patrician of the Mulligan family who has presided over this largely African-American population for decades. The widows’ stories intersect with that of Manning, his opponent Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and Jack’s father Tom (Robert Duvall), with all striving for some sort of power and an escape route from their pasts. Even Jack, the silver-spoon neoliberal who mismanaged millions of dollars, becomes sympathetic through his renunciation of his racist father.
This is the widows’ story, of course, but McQueen and Flynn take the time to dissect the complexities of molecular election maneuvering: Manning visits a local pastor, whose sway in the community can tip an entire voting body. Manning wishes he could just strong-arm his way into the office but is constantly restraining himself; he’s fully aware he’s entering a foreign cultural sphere where one must finesse his way into power. That’s why it’s especially scary when Manning visits Veronica and lets his mask fall. As he demands his money back, he grabs her dog and strokes the fur on its scruff just a little too hard. Henry, as he did in Atlanta, proves again his ability to play a many-layered character trying to wedge himself into a world in which he does not belong.
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McQueen can shrewdly condense an essay’s worth of ideas into one long shot. Take the scene where Jack enters the car after a painfully orchestrated press event in an impoverished African-American neighborhood. Instead of bringing the camera inside to capture up-close a heated discussion about the election, McQueen stations the camera on the hood, dedicating a third of the screen to the neighborhood the characters are passing through. At first, I didn’t understand what I was seeing or why, but as the car passed by increasingly nicer and more expensive homes, it dawned on me that we were getting a real-time, single-take look at how closely the extremely poor and extremely wealthy live next to one another: This is just a four-minute drive.
But back to the women at the story’s heart. For all her husband’s money, and their penthouse in Oprah’s old Magnificent Mile stomping grounds, Veronica knows her family aren’t insulated from something like police violence — her son was murdered by a cop. That complicates her relationship with the guns she and the crew need to pull off the heist they hope will set things right. In so many other such films, characters handle weaponry without a second thought; Veronica is never not thinking about the toll firearms have taken on our society. McQueen gives us an extreme close-up of Veronica’s lips as she sucks down a cigarette, but even then, it’s evident violence is on her mind.
Davis, of course, is a powerhouse, but the ensemble of women actors here, each flinty in her own way, play off each other with such spark that it sent a shiver down my arms when they gathered together. I curse the Fast & Furious franchise for locking Rodriguez into the role of one-dimensional love interest, thank God for Debicki’s second sensational performance this year (after Jennifer Fox’s The Tale) and welcome with open arms Cynthia Erivo, who plays a spunky no-nonsense hairdresser-turned-driver. Erivo infuses her character with an effusive hopefulness that counters the script’s drearier spots.
I’d say McQueen is an actor’s director, because he has given every single character in this film a moment, a revelation, an extreme close-up full of humanity, but that would be discounting all his technical and visual sensibilities. Widows is peak McQueen — and though heist films remain common, few have made them with such truth-telling insight into race, class and violence in America.