As celebrated and talented as Steve McQueen is in the film world, I have always felt his films are the kind I can only watch once in my life. Dealing with topics like starvation, addiction and enslavement and watching his characters punished on screen is not necessarily what I want to revisit on a Friday night. That said, his previous works are definitely masterpieces worth a viewing! He’s an incredibly talented filmmaker with a lot to say but the films that test the hand of time are those that can be enjoyed over and over.
Going into Widows, I already sensed a shift in his storytelling. Working with Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) as his co-writer, and adapted from a 1983 British television crime drama, I knew this film was going to be heavy but action-packed and dare I say different to the rest of his body of work. After viewing it, I can definitely say it’s more than a heist film. It’s about the resilience of four women who do what they need to do for their family and livelihood after their husbands perish in a robbery gone wrong.
The film begins with an intimate scene of couple Harry (Liam Neeson) and Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) kissing passionately in bed. This is paired with alternate scenes of three other relationships, most not so loving and nurturing as this one. Then the film takes a contrasting turn with a heist scene. Harry and three other men fleeing into a van that explodes into flames in a job gone wrong.
Veronica, now a widow comes to learn that not only has she lost the love of her life. He left her a hefty debt of $2 million. One that he stole from crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who also happens to be in the midst of a political campaign. Jamal pays a very intense visit to her penthouse and shakes up her little dog—NOT COOL MAN. He demands she liquidate her assets and gives her exactly one month to settle the debt.
Viola Davis’ performance as Veronica is chilling and exquisite. During the film, she has these intimate flashbacks with her husband showing the viewers how passionate and loving their relationship was. It almost makes us forgiving of the situation he’s left her in. There is this beautiful scene where she gazes at her reflection through a window at her home. She imagines Harry nuzzling up to her, holding her from behind as Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind” plays in the background.
But all is not lost! Veronica is given a key to a safe deposit box that holds a journal containing details to Harry’s final job. She is desperate and determined enough to execute it but not without some help. Veronica recruits Linda played by Michelle Rodriguez, a woman who owned a Quinceñera dress store that was ransacked by creditors due to her deadbeat husband gambling away her rent money. She also recruits Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) whose husband beat her and is now being pushed to market herself to wealthy gentlemen as an escort by her mother. Both women are also widows from the same ill-fated robbery that took Harry’s life. There is a forth woman, Amanda but she has a newborn baby and makes it clear she cannot help.
Linda and Alice are fierce in their own way in the film. Neither women have experience in pulling off a heist but use their smarts, wits and in Alice’s case, looks to get what they need for the job. After all, this isn’t for fun as portrayed in other heist films. It’s out of realistic anguish to get themselves out of the financial holes they also find themselves in.
I felt completely engaged throughout the 2 hours and 9-minute film. I was just as tied to the subplots and secondary characters as I was to the widows themselves. Jatemme Manning played by Get Out‘s Daniel Kaluuya is Jamal’s brother and right-hand enforcer. He is as evil as they come as the villain. Stoic but sardonic and incredibly cruel, some of his scenes have that shock value that pulls you into the story that much more. There is also Jack Mulligan played by Colin Farrell who is running against Jamal Manning for Alderman. He’s the son of an elderly but incredibly powerful ex Chicago politician played by Robert Duvall. His character pretty much is deranged and yelling explicits and racist undercurrents throughout. Similar to Grandpa from The Simpsons but angrier and more offensive.
The scene-stealing supporting character of this film though has got to be Cynthia Erivo’s character, Belle O’Reilly. She joins the widow’s heist gang wanting to provide the best for her daughter as a single mother. She is the only character who can stand up to Veronica’s demands.
With all this said there are a few criticisms I feel need to be pointed out that didn’t sit well with me. Jackie Weaver overdid it as Alice’s overbearing mother. So much so, I was thankful she was barely in it. Also as much as I respect and enjoy Colin Farrell as an actor his accent for this film was terrible! His voice went from a scratchy and sleazy Chicagoan to an Irish man trying to hold down a fake American accent too many times. It was distracting me from what was otherwise a wonderful performance. I get it, accents aren’t easy, but I need to be honest here. Otherwise, the witty dialog in general and intensely moody score by movie music master Hans Zimmer rounds out the film overall and elevates it beautifully.
Widows is packed with crowd pleasing action, audience gasping twists and some fantastic payoffs that must be enjoyed on the big screen! The acting from all the women especially Davis and Erivo are incredible. This is what I would call an entertaining, feminist heist film! Oceans 8 eat your heart out! There are even a few laughs sprinkled in between all the dread and complicated topics. The nature of modern political dynasties, gender roles expectations, police racism and socioeconomic inequality are all addressed in between the grand scheme being carried out. Only McQueen could touch on so much and seamlessly integrate it all into the main story without it feeling too preachy or excessive. Finally! A Steve McQueen film worth revisiting!
Minor spoiler alert: Rest assured the little dog is ok throughout the film. Veronica carries that little floof everywhere she goes. As a fellow pet lover, I can’t stand to see animals injured in any way on film.