Steve McQueen’s Widows is a thriller almost uncomfortable with thrills. Though it has its fair share of mayhem (this is a very violent picture), a ferocious cast, and a plot with several twists and turns, the 12 Years A Slave director’s latest movie, which he co-wrote with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, is slow and methodic, fueled by fear and desperation, rather than the usual suspect, greed.
The usual suspect, however, does make a quick appearance in the form of Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), the leader of a proficient robber crew. But Widows, practicing in genre-reversal storytelling, has no place for him, and after a brilliant, adrenaline-pumping opening sequence which combines the events of their latest heist with those of the domestic day leading up to it, Harry and his crew are dead, stripping their titular wives of physical and financial security.
Retribution is soon demanded by the men whose money was stolen by Harry and then destroyed during the explosive getaway (the van’s blown up during the police’s harrowing, Bonnie and Clyde-style ambush). One of them shows up at the Rawling’s upscale Chicago apartment, where a grieving Veronica (a ferocious Viola Davis) is given a month to cease the $2 million debt. A notebook left by Harry points the way to a $5 million stash somewhere in the city, and with a possible $3 million profit, Veronica asks the other widows for help.
Two of them, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriquez), are skeptical of the offer and the fourth, Amanda (Carrie Coon), has her own reasons for staying out. But Alice and Linda have it rough – Alice, who greets us with a black eye, was beaten by her husband, but is now abused by her tyrannical mother (Jacki Weaver), and Linda has lost her store due to her husband’s gambling habit – and with Linda’s babysitter, Belle (Cynthia Erivo), they join up.
From there, the abstract concept is familiarized as the typical tasks are divided: getting the getaway van, acquiring guns, mapping out the route, etc. etc. The differentiations are brought in to port by the widows’ apparent and self-recognized discomfort with the job. Unlike, say, the women of Ocean’s 8, who feast on riches for pleasure and gain, Widows showcases four people powered by a toxic blend of need and despair. “I’m not Harry,” admits Veronica, whose grief romanticizes her memories of him and somewhat blinds her of the terrible mess he’s left behind for her.
It’s moments like these, when external desperation tangles with internal morality, that Widows flourishes. The casting of Michelle Rodriquez – who’s no stranger to gunpowder and with prominent performances throughout the action-packed Fast and Furious franchise and in other films such as Avatar and Machete – as Linda, who probably couldn’t hit the side of the barn with a gun, is fantastic for the same reason.
With that said, all of the casting choices are excellent. This is, without a doubt, the best ensemble performance of the year. The timing of the widows’ robbery coincides with the election of a ward split in half by the poverty line. The election faces Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), whose father (Robert Duvall) ran the ward the old-fashioned way, against crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Jamal’s brother, Jatemme, played expertly and terrifyingly by Daniel Kaluuya, is his enforcer and the most villainous character in recent memory – a shot of the two of them together at Harry’s funeral sticks out among the most threateningly unforgettable of 2018.
The connection is that it’s the Manning’s money that was initially stolen, and the Mulligan’s which is now being sought after. The election itself is supposed to construct a larger societal presence for the film, but is, in fact, McQueen and Flynn’s least convincing contribution. Despite the authentic locations (an impressive long shot following Jack Mulligan from the campaign trail to his home establishes the vast difference a block can make), Chicago, as a metropolis with volatile racial, political, and financial complications, does not make a real impression.
The city’s, or in this case, the ward’s issues end up serving only as a backdrop for the robbery, often diverting attention away from the more appealing dramatic premise amongst the robbers. The drama behind human survival is certainly greater than political prominence, and Widows is at its best when it hangs with its widows.