by Joshua Ray on Nov 15, 2018

There’s a shot early in director Steve McQueen’s Widows that haphazardly announces the politically subversive nature of this Hollywood-made heist thriller. Following a rally for his program supporting women entrepreneurs of color, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) — the white incumbent alderman for largely black ward on the south side Chicago — berates his campaign manager and girlfriend, Siobhan (Molly Kunz) in the back of their luxury car.

Instead of following the pair into the back of the vehicle, McQueen mounts a camera at the front of the car, showing the city streets as the passengers glide to their destination. At one point during the ride, the camera pivots to the other side of the street, highlighting the socioeconomic gap between the politician’s underprivileged constituents and his own gated mansion just a short ride down the street.

This divide in the urban United States is well-trod thematic territory, but McQueen gives it startling clarity here. It’s so clear, in fact, that the moment removes itself — and the viewer — from the film and becomes an act of non-narrative filmmaking in stark contrast to the largely routine but supremely well-mounted genre fare that surrounds it. To this end, Widows often peddles half-baked political grandstanding, including the egregious inclusion of a real-world fatal traffic stop that otherwise goes without comment.

Bludgeoning the audience with theme was the director’s mode in the morose sex addiction drama, Shame (2011), before he’d win a deserved Best Director Oscar for the more urgent and lean 12 Years a Slave (2013). Widows finds McQueen somewhere in the middle of those two previous works, oscillating between being punishing and transcendent. Here, McQueen doesn’t trust himself or his audience sufficiently to allow the plot’s intrinsic qualities to speak to the racial politics of modern America.

He and co-screenwriter, Gillian Flynn — the writer behind twisty novels Sharp Objects and Gone Girl and their filmic adaptation — update a 1983 British miniseries of the same name to a contemporary Chicago where sociopolitical upheaval is prevalent. Veronica (Viola Davis) is a teacher’s union representative married to big-time crook Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson). Their interracial relationship — paired with Veronica’s wealth that contrasts with the financial struggles of other black characters — is one of the more compelling and sophisticated acknowledgements of racial parity throughout Widows.

The opening shot of the film is a sexy jolt, painting a portrait of Veronica and Harry at the peak of their romantic prime. It speaks to Widows’ canny craft as a thriller that even revealing that much about the film’s opening feels like a spoiler. Mere minutes later, the audience is thrust into a heist that ends fatally for its five male participants, Rawlins included. Their fumble leaves the grieving Veronica on the hook for two million dollars to two-faced politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry, proving versatility in a role very different from those in Atlanta [2015-] and White Boy Rick [2018]). 

Manning’s posse is led by his violent sociopath brother, Jatemme, played Daniel Kaluuya of Get Out (2017). It’s a brooding and intense role; Jatemme initially only looms in the background, letting his older brother handle the manipulation, before eventually engaging in his own fatal mind games. In a sequence as cinematically showy and thematically weighty as the aforementioned car ride, a camera swirls around Jatemme and a couple of criminal low-lifes as they rap for him, just before he suddenly shoots them dead. His sadism is only matched by McQueen’s willingness to linger on it, unnecessarily and tortuously taking it to extremes later in the film with a protracted stabbing sequence in a bowling alley.

Jamal seeks to become the first black alderman of the 18th ward, running against Mulligan, who all but inherited the position from his father, Tom. In that role, veteran actor Robert Duvall does his best scenery-chewing impression of himself against Farrell, who dips in and out of a Chicago accent as shifty as his character’s political dealings. Those two, along with another seethingly gross portrayal of a Chicago stereotype by Jackie Weaver, represent the nadir of the performances in Widows, whose actors either work within McQueen’s modern Hollywood parable or completely against it.

The first half of Widows is filled with backroom political power struggles, and although it isn’t initially clear why or how Mulligan’s re-election bid factors into the botched robbery, Flynn and McQueen begin to intertwine these threads with those of Veronica’s desperate mission to pay back Manning. That mission becomes the main thrust of Widows as seemingly loosely-connected events and people begin colliding like charged particles in an accelerator.

As in Flynn’s previous work, the disparate plotting seems to lack coherence at first blush, but as Veronica discovers that Harry left her plans to a future robbery — one that will allow her to settle her debt and live comfortably again — most of the film’s details gain clarity. Still, Widows is overstuffed with rudementarily sketched characters and comparatively flabby when considered alongside the lean and mean Gone Girl (2014), David Fincher’s adaptation of Flynn’s popular beach read.

The core female characters of Widows, however, are drawn with interest and complexity. As Veronica, Davis lends credibility to the somewhat outlandish plot by carrying herself with both dignity and desperation as she enlists the other widows of her husband’s gang members to help her. It’s a multifaceted showcase for a performer who’s known for her reserves of power. Here, Davis is allowed her trademark snot-nosed wails of anguish, but is also permitted to be a humane superhero figure with a mean, manipulative streak.

The other titular thieves are equally fascinating, pushing Widows in the right direction as a screed against the gender, classist, and racial power imbalances within the United States. Elizabeth Debicki is wickedly funny as second generation Polish emigre, Alice, a woman whose apparent vapidity begins to dissipate when she’s given purpose. Michelle Rodriguez’s Linda is a complex badass, negotiating between single motherdom and her criminal undertakings. Finally, Cynthia Erivo — handily demonstrating that that she has the presence to hang with more veteran performers — portrays quiet powerhouse Belle, a beneficiary of Mulligan’s program for women of color.

The righteous lust and determination with which Veronica and her cohorts carry out Harry’s plan become a fist-pumping act of mainstream feminist gender-flipping. It feels necessary and just after the disappointment of this year’s other female-led heist film, Gary Ross’ Ocean’s 8. That film only hinted at the sociopolitical imbalances that spurned its creation, while Widows illustrates their depth and breadth. In its most dour moments, McQueen’s film crashes with thudding obviousness, but when it reaches supreme Hollywood generic craftsmanship, its message soars.

Rating: B-