Veronica( Viola Davis), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) have three choices: pay a two million dollar debt left by their dead criminal husbands by pulling one last score, or take a bullet to the head for the actions they didn’t make and a life they only knew so little about. Welcome to Steve McQueen’s Widows, a hypnotic ride.
If I was a guessing man, I wouldn’t peg a female-powered heist film as McQueen’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning 12 Years A Slave. Then again, I may just have the ambitious filmmaker all wrong. What the filmmaker does here, with a script co-written by Gone Girl femme fatale Gillian Flynn, is take your preconceived notions about what a heist thriller is supposed to do with a two hour main frame-and throws them out the window.
Widows’ greatest strength, outside of a sinister cast of magicians, is the unconventional route it takes in telling a story we think is ordinary and common ground for cinematic fodder. Once Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew get blown up in a botched score, their women have to pick up the pieces, because dirty politicians like Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry) and Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) will come gunning if they don’t. Toss in more untrustworthy suits running for alderman like Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), and you have a juicy puzzle of sleaze, corruption, and bullet-riddled consequences laid out across the city of Chicago.
Do you have it figured out? The movie addict brain will try and drum up a solution to what goes down here, but you don’t know half of it. McQueen plays things close to the vest, keeping his focus in the first half of the film on the anguish and grief of Veronica and her plan with the wives to survive while following the Mannings torment around town. The director is like a poker player who is willing to show you his cards, but not his intentions. The criminal underbelly of Chicago is the playground he dances around on here, which produces many avenues.
Yes, there is a big twist later in the film that rocks the boat, and reroutes the plot in a way that keeps you glued to the seat as well as make the hair on the back of your head stand up. Once again, the juice here is that the story unfolds slowly, giving the viewer pieces of the plot without showing you everything. Characters aren’t built out of wooden parts, instead coming together with more flexible pieces that allow for growth in the second and third act. You’ll see Veronica and Harry as this unique and madly in love couple, but there’s a poisonous grape in their past that festers into the climax of the film.
McQueen knows how to shoot an action sequence, focusing on each bullet and its sound instead of unleashing chaos in a scene. When bullet fly off the side of a van, you’ll feel the blunt trauma of their impact. When a car slams into a low road mount, it’ll crack against the back of the road. He may be having fun with the genre, but he still knows how to deliver the action.
Here’s what I liked: A male director directing a film about women taking back the power. Who would have thought that in today’s crooked Hollywood landscape? It’s an inviting twist that Flynn helps him comprise from a 1983 mini-series, off which the film is loosely based.
I love how the women in Flynn’s stories are underrated and thought of as disposable. Alice is beaten up by her husband (Jon Bernthal, making good use of a couple scenes) and courted as a hooker with benefits by another (Lukas Haas)-but she’s more capable than initially conceived. Same for Veronica. A warm-hearted yet cold-soul carrying school teacher who suddenly has to learn new skills. Linda also wasn’t privy to her husband’s (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) actions, but she adapts because she doesn’t want to just drift away. Flynn’s women adapt and grow stronger. That’s a sexy zip code to live in these days.
Davis delivers a stunning performance that doesn’t surprise me one bit. The actress conveys emotion easier than most, and can tap into a page of dialogue with a single look. Rodriguez injects a little despair into her usual bad girl routine, and Cynthia Erivo adds some strong-willed muscle. Farrell is a master cook who knows how to measure sleaze with conviction, but Kaluuya is scary good as a hood with an energetic trigger finger.
The standout here is Debicki, who you may know from smaller roles in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and more recently, Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 (Rocket stole batteries from her gold-painted skinned Queen). Here, playing a woman who has been abused her whole life, physically and emotionally, Debicki gets a real role to lean into, and gives a performance that holds up after the credits roll. There’s more to Alice than you think, and it carries some of the better parts of this flick.
McQueen’s Widows is unconventional, builds its story with unique chess moves, and carries a style that grabs your attention. The grift-or-die plot will pull you in, but the imprint he puts on the genre will make you a stir afterwards. He believes in these women, and so do we. By doing things differently and revealing his intentions at a slower pace in such a kinetic type of film, he conveys a quiet power inside of a thriller where people wear masks of all kinds. He touches on the ability of grief and tragedy to create long strands that bend people over time into someone else.
If there is one nitpick I have with the movie, it’s an ending that wraps everything up a little too neat. Coincidence plays a part, but it’s more about multiple threads that need a home before redundancy comes into play. After setting things up in propulsive fashion, everything comes together quite easily. There is a nice crowd-pleasing payoff though.
By making Widows something different, Steve McQueen gave a familiar genre a fresh coast of paint and the audience an entertaining film with depth. Bravo, sir.