On the surface, it would be almost too easy to dismiss the women of Widows as oblivious, naive, helpless, or – worst of all – dumb. But therein lies the brilliance and thematic intricacy of Steve McQueen’s latest film – a ferocious and sophisticated reimagining of the BBC miniseries that starred Helen Mirren. McQueen’s Widows moves the action across the pond to Chicago for a morally complex heist film featuring a phenomenal ensemble anchored by the exceptional Viola Davis.
The opening moments deliver an inciting incident every bit as nerve-shattering and elegantly executed as anything in you’d find in a film by Christopher Nolan, Michael Mann, etc.: A crew of career criminals, led by Liam Neeson’s Harry Rawlins, are pursued by the cops after a heist goes south. Thinking they’re in the clear, the team changes vehicles to an unmarked van parked in a garage. But when the door opens, they’re met with a barricade of police cars and a barrage of bullets. There’s an explosion. Everyone inside the van is dead. The money they stole is incinerated along with their bodies.
The deaths of Harry, Florek (Jon Bernthal), Coburn (Jimmy Goss), and Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) have left behind four grieving widows – all of whom were aware of their husbands’ work, none of whom are equipped to compensate the crime boss their husbands ripped off in that ill-fated heist. When Veronica (Davis), a former teacher’s union delegate, discovers her husband’s notebook and the detailed plans for what would’ve been Harry’s next heist, she recruits two of her three fellow widows to help pull it off. If they do, they’ll not only be able to pay back the money their husbands stole, but they’ll also take home a hefty sum for themselves.
Though absolutely riveting, the opening sequence of Widows is more compelling for another reason: It’s in the way that McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) successfully convey so much about these relationships in the fleeting moments before the husbands walk out the door for the last time. We watch as Veronica (Davis) carefully pours a single shot of alcohol from a flask and drinks it in front of Harry with a nod to acknowledge some unspoken agreement. From this seemingly innocuous moment we – or at least some of us – discern that Veronica is a recovering alcoholic, taking her morning shot to keep the tremors (and demons) at bay. We see Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and the bruise over her eye, and the way she subtly flinches when Florek says it hurts him to see it there. We watch as Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), the owner of a dress shop, bickers with Carlos over their finances, and how he gives her assurances that are obviously empty. We witness the final exchange between Amanda (Carrie Coon) and Coburn and their newborn son, and we feel the tragedy here the most before it even hits.
What unites these women isn’t just that they have been widowed by career criminals, but that they are all, in their own ways, victims of circumstance. Alice was groomed by her mother (Jacki Weaver) to be little more than a trophy wife; with no college education, she submits to her mother’s urging and becomes an escort for wealthy men. Linda loses her dress shop, which Carlos put up as collateral for gambling debts. Amanda is left with a fatherless, infant child – and thus unable to participate in the heist, replaced later by Belle (Cynthia Erivo, continuing her outstanding year), a single mother who works multiple jobs. Veronica is left with her husband’s debt to crime boss and local politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), and his menacing enforcer Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya in the most terrifying and villainous turn of the year). But there is an additional, uniquely awful dimension to Veronica’s plight, as Jamal reminds her in a particularly unnerving scene. She is the black widow of a white man who had wealth and maintained beneficial relationships with men in positions of power. If she’s not Harry’s husband, then Veronica is no one. “Welcome back,” Jamal whispers.
While you could easily draw comparisons between Steve McQueen’s refined execution of action and heist sequences and the similar work on display in a Christopher Nolan film, there’s far more meat (and teeth) to Widows than anything the latter has made – perhaps because Nolan’s films are so distinctly masculine that they tend to ring overly familiar and, consequently, somewhat hollow. Widows is narratively intricate but never convoluted, and explores a moral complexity that eschews the conventional binary of good or bad, and black or white. There is a deliberate quality to every moving second of this film, be it the casting of Davis opposite Neeson, the garish beading on Jacki Weaver’s funeral attire, or Jatemme’s proclivity for NPR.
It could be argued that much of Widows is built on narrative convenience, but that would reduce its leads to little more than helpless objects bouncing from one plot point to the next. What McQueen and Flynn have constructed instead is a plot that honors Veronica and her crew – all victims of circumstance fighting for agency in their respective narratives. Their story in turn holds a mirror up to Jamal’s arc as he contends with Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), a shady, white male politician from a long line of shady, white male politicians that have lorded over this corner of Chicago.
Widows easily rivals Suspiria in terms of thematic heft, but what might’ve been an unwieldy, bloated heist flick from any other filmmaker feels like a streamlined thriller in the deft hands of McQueen (and Flynn). And yet for all its moving parts and various narrative threads, its impressive heist sequences (including a pivotal long-take) and riveting turns, there’s nothing more powerful in Widows than the small, wordless moments between characters – and how they communicate so much by saying nothing at all.