Synopsis – Set in contemporary Chicago, amid a time of turmoil, four women with nothing in common except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities, take fate into their own hands, and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.
My Take – Ever since director Steven Soderbergh‘s Ocean’s 11 ensemble remake exploded into the scene back in 2001, most studio baked heist films have been concerned with following the successful staple set by the franchise by making sure no matter how hard or tough the robbery is going to be everything must look cool, shiny and glossy. While the year has its share of female-led heist film in the form of the standard Ocean’s 8, here, director Steve McQueen‘s film sharply drifts the genre by adding grittiness into the mix.
While an adaption of a six-part TV British crime drama that aired on ITV in 1983 may not appear as the perfect candidate for a high-profile Hollywood remake, particularly one with an ensemble cast of known faces, director Steve McQueen‘s film, slyly presents itself as your everyday popcorn thriller, but ultimately flips the well-worn crime caper genre right on its head, by adding plenty of thrills and twisty plot points along with a complex narrative, which touches on race, gender, class, politics, misogyny, corruption, greed, punishment, and, above all things, power.
With another commanding performance from Viola Davis, and an ingenious screenplay co-written by McQueen and Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, the film hits the ground running and barely ever stops to take a breath. Here, director McQueen is determined on keeping tensions at simmering point, crafting a breathtaking thrill ride that consistently keeps you guessing with twists and turns aplenty. But, where his film deviates from your typical heist melodrama is the skillful introspection of its powerful themes, hereby breathing new life into author Lynda La Plante’s British novel of the same name.
The story follows Veronica (Viola Davis), a member of the teacher’s union rep, who lives a fairly comfortable life with her husband, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), a famed bank robber with political connections. However when Harry along with his partners, Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Florek (Jon Bernthal) and Jimmy (Coburn Goss), are killed in a police shoot out while carrying out their latest hit, the victim of the robbery, former drug kingpin Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) and his younger brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) come knocking on Veronica’s door demanding the $2 million her husband stole from him in a month’s time.
Turns out the $2 million that Harry lifted from Manning was the funding he had gathered for his campaign for the alderman post of the South Side precinct in the upcoming elections against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who is in the running to take over the role as part of a long dynasty from his grouchy father Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall). Left with no one to trust but her husband’s driver Bash (Garret Dillahunt), still reeling from her loss while seeing no way to accumulate the necessary funds, Veronica comes across Harry’s diary which outlines plans for her next job.
In the short time given, she decides to use the plan to device a a heist plan of her own and enlists, the other widows of the former job; Linda (Michelle Rodriquez), a single mother who discovers that her criminal husband spent their savings on booze and gambling; Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) who was trapped by abuse, and has resorted to high-end prostitution after her husband’s death; Amanda (Carrie Coon), now a single mother of a newborn, opts out of the operation, and is replaced by hairdresser Belle (Cynthia Erivo), who’s fast as hell thanks to juggling multiple jobs to feed her kid and hustling to catch the bus and make it all work; to execute her plan and walk away with $5 million. From there the women have to find their individual strength to survive especially when most of the men in their world are either cut-throat criminals or corrupt politicians.
And that is just the basics of the film as the story has far more to tell when you look at it under the surface. The film has a lot going on in its 129 minute run time and there some plot twists that make it feel a little incoherent but does very little to impact the film’s near perfect quality writing and the assured direction. While most examples of the heist genre fall into silly farce, director McQueen grounds his film in gritty reality with an inescapable sense of desperation pulsing throughout the entire gripping narrative. Part Robin Hood tale, part female-empowerment fable, here we can’t shake the notion that these women find themselves trapped in a man’s world where the odds are perpetually stacked against them. It’s a game they’re not meant to win, lest even play in. The four women we meet here steal from the rich (and corrupt) and distribute it among themselves.
Granted, their methods aren’t the best, but they’re looking for ways to provide for their families or to stay out of sexual servitude. For each, the money is a means toward worthwhile ends. The unlikely gathering is a mixing pot of personalities. In a way though, they’re all the same; they’re women who are treated like pawns at the hands of their significant other. The glimpses of the women’s everyday lives, which director McQueen and writer Flynn use to prove their stamina and agency, convince us that the heist is the only course of action.
With the slickness of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11, the quartet cobble together the pieces of Harry’s plan. We see Linda go into detective mode to decode a set of blueprints. Later, Alice puts on a Polish accent to convince a sympathetic mother to buy her three handguns from a gun show. Loose laws make it all too easy. Setting the film against a corrupt-vs.-more-corrupt election makes the political angle a given, but the way the film tackles the gender chasm, gentrification, police brutality and local class warfare empowers the film’s most operatic swings. A scene in which we follow Jack Mulligan from a public development rally to his suburban mansion just a few blocks away, all done in a single shot locked on Jack’s chauffeured black car, background houses in plain sight is a brutal indictment of director McQueen’s Chicago filming location.
Hearing Robert Duvall’s Tom Mulligan, the elder of Jack’s political dynasty, drop the n-word in political strategizing is a swift punch to the gut; when we pick back up with Veronica, the slur lingers, though it’s unable to erode her drive. The juxtaposition is a comment on black female power we rarely see. As a writer, Flynn’s contributions to the screenplay are also deeply felt, illuminating the script with a grit and furor in the women that plays beautifully against director McQueen’s versatility. The film is thematically about how people move on and rebuild themselves in a broken society. The core group of women have had their lives be defined by their husbands’ actions for better or for worse. From sexism, race relations, entitled privileges, politics to infidelity, director McQueen is exploring so many of these subjects in his heist thriller.
In less capable hands, so many of these themes and messages could feel force-fed and overbearing but director McQueen makes them engaging in every single scene he shoots. Scenes will cut from calm, quiet moments to establish the nature of the widow’s late marriages to sudden bursts of violence, action and tension to get your heart racing. Along with shots filled with dark and cool, light color palettes, director McQueen shows on screen how divided the world is between those who feel they deserve wealth and power and those are mistreated by it. The film strikes that perfect balance between the talents of McQueen, a director whose films grapple with society’s many vicious, manmade battles, and writer Flynn, a master of pulpy stories with major payoffs.
Even if you see where it’s going from a mile away, the winding way of how the film get there, and the boom that each piece makes as it lands into place, makes this one of the best films of the year and a high point for a genre rife with imitations. While the film is a thematically dark and serious story, screenwriter Gillian Flynn gives the characters a lot of subtle humor and sharp witted dialogue that actually makes the film surprisingly fun to watch. The inevitable heist is great too, smartly opting not to go down the Ocean’s route of swish step-by-stepping, and keeping the ordeal firmly rooted in the unpredictability of reality. While the heist may be the center piece of the story, but the subplot of Jack’s election battle with Jamal is another of McQueen and writer Flynn’s subtle plot points with deeper intentions. He may be as morally corrupt as his political rival, but he’s merely playing the same game the big boys are. As much as the film highlights sexism and gender inequality, it’s also capturing the power inequality faced by African Americans. If there’s a criticism then the ending rather fizzles out, leaving a few loose ends flapping in the breeze.
Thankfully, director McQueen‘s skill is matched by the top-notch cast. Viola Davis is definitely the most awards-worthy to watch. As the lead widow, Davis brings so much to her character without even having to say a word. Elizabeth Debicki gets to show a light touch in the more comedic, though no less heartfelt, of the main female roles. Michelle Rodriguez gets a break from the usual action films to show dramatic range in her character Linda. While Cynthia Erivo doesn’t show up until late in the film, she makes a very strong impression once she joins the crew. Collin Farrell also does great bringing complexity to the corrupt politician Jack Mulligan who is seeking to escape the legacy of the excellent Robert Duvall‘s cruel father.
As expected, Brian Tyler Henry and Daniel Kaluuya manage to stand tall from the crowd as they steal every scene they are present in. In smaller roles, Liam Neeson, Jackie Weaver, Lukas Haas, Molly Kunz, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Garret Dillahunt and Jon Michael Hill manage to stand out, while Jon Bernthal, Carrie Coon and Coburn Goss are underutilized in their roles. On the whole, ‘Widows’ is a stark, violently entertaining film uplifted by its empowering ensemble, compelling story and ambitious stakes.
Directed – Steve McQueen
Rated – R
Run Time – 129 minutes