On paper there was nothing about the story of “Widows” that interested me. A heist movie about a heist that goes fatally bad. Then the widows of the men killed in the heist plan a heist of their own. Obviously that is a very basic (and admittedly unfair) reading of it but story-wise I didn’t see much to get excited about.
But it’s amazing how a compelling director and a stellar cast can dramatically change your outlook. Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) handles the directing duties but also co-writes alongside Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”). With that kind of talent working the pens you expect the story to have more going on than a mere surface reading would reveal. That’s definitely the cased for “Widows” although it does have a few kinks.
The film opens with seasoned thief Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew being killed after a botched robbery turns violent. The always fabulous Viola Davis stars as Veronica, Harry’s widow. Turns out Harry swiped $2 million from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a Chicago mob boss running for alderman in a Southside precinct. He needs his money back to fund his campaign against his equally crooked but politically established opponent Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell).
Manning and his cold-blooded strong-arm Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) begin pressing Veronica giving her three days to get their money or clearly something bad will happen. Her only out is to pull off a heist of her own and to do so she rounds up two of the widows from Harry’s crew, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez). They later recruit Belle whose played by a terrific but terrible underused Cynthia Erivo.
Most of the film takes place as they get ready for the heist, but it doesn’t focus specifically on that. Instead McQueen uses this time the flesh out these women (some better than others). Their actual heist prep gets the back-burner treatment and ends up being thrown together a little too neatly. McQueen does a good job of making this more than a simple heist film but in doing so he shortchanges the very elements of the heist.
Time is also spent on a subplot that explores dirty municipal politics and the plays for power by Manning and Mulligan. They battle for influential endorsements and each manipulates the lower income voter base for their own reasons. Manning wants to extend his criminal control, Mulligan is pushed by his loathsome father (Robert Duvall in a nostalgic but lightweight role) to preserve their family’s long run of political standing.
Davis is the perfect person to anchor the film and its swirl of moving parts. She provides a strong emotional center and some of the film’s best scenes are of Veronica alone dealing with her pent-up anger and unrelenting grief. The other women also hand in good performances especially the often underappreciated Debicki.
McQueen gets good work from the supporting gents as well. Henry is particularly good as a figure who’s both persuasive and intimidating. Farrell is very convincing as a wealthy political slimeball. Kaluuya is handed the more crowd-pleasing role. There is practically no complexity to his character whatsoever. He’ll pop up throughout the film, each time just for a moment, and then he’s gone. I do wish he had more depth, but he’s very effective as a chilling and ruthless killer.
“Widows” may frame itself as a heist movie but it can hardly be put in that box. McQueen has a much broader aim and his film touches on a lot of different things. It’s loaded with subtle (and some not so subtle) statements on politics, race, economic standing, crime, and even a wedged in critique of police brutality. Some are more effective than others. The film is strongest when telling the women’s story – about their fight through systems stacked against them to carry out their mission. Unfortunately some of that story gets lost amid McQueen’s ambition.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS