Heist movies are generally big, loud and extravagant, in every way possible. The characters fill the screen with charisma and personality, the music and sound design immerse you in the experience, and there is some massive explosion or chase to drop your jaw. This isn’t to the genre’s detriment, more so the opposite, that’s what makes them so fun! What happens when you strip all of that away? Steve McQueen attempts to find out, with co-writer Gillian Flynn, in his latest film Widows. The film almost feels like an inversion of the genre as a whole. McQueen strips all the gloss from what is normally a very shiny genre and goes to work from there. Armed with an impeccably written script (that he also co-wrote) McQueen was able to make a practical and real heist film that has more heart and substance than it does actual heisting. The result: an absolutely stunning film that is perfect in its execution and impossible to turn away from.
The film opens at the end of a high intensity heist that seems to be going awry. This isn’t unusual for heist films but this is where McQueen’s inversion of the genre begins. Throughout this sequence there are beautiful cross cuts to these men at home with their wives. While at first it seems like backstory for the men, it quickly becomes apparent that these cuts are more about the women. The wives are usually forgotten about in these films but we see, via Joe Walker’s beautiful editing, that they are much more than reasons to be sympathetic for the men. Not only that, McQueen is preparing us for the film that we are about to experience. While the heist is thrilling and entertaining the more compelling moments of this opening sequence are with the women. This sequence is more about the drama than it is the heist, which can be expanded to the film as a whole and is why the film is so compelling.
The women we are introduced to Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriquez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) have very different backgrounds but are put into a similar situation because of the deaths of their husbands during that opening heist. We spend a lot of time with them as they try to maneuver how to handle the deaths of their husbands. This drama is captivating because it is so real; the fallout of that initial heist is huge for the women tied to these men. Linda loses her business because of her husband’s mismanagement, Alice is lost because she has never had to survive on her own and Veronica is left with her husband’s debt and a ton of questions. This is what the story is really about, these women overcoming the consequences of their husbands’ actions. Instead of being victims they come together to take what they want and try and change their circumstances. This becomes even more difficult when Veronica is visited by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a big-time drug dealer whose money was stolen by Henry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), Veronica’s late husband.
Jamal’s presence in the film adds another compelling element to Widows. His character does the obvious, provides motivation for Veronica to pull a heist of her own by threatening her, but like every other element of the film there is much more to him. Jamal isn’t simply a drug dealer that wants his money back, he is a budding politician running for Alderman of his ward in Chicago. First we see the latter, which makes the former all the more surprising. To further the complication the money is for his campaign against, silver spoon politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell). This plot line is rich with subtext and compelling dialogue. It is fertile ground for Farrell and Henry to work and they both work beautifully. Henry really shines, maybe because of the two faced nature of his character or the fact that he is a brilliant actor, either way he makes Manning outrageously compelling, even though he’s incredibly complicated.
Most of that aforementioned rich subtext can be applied to the racial dynamics of these characters and their relationship. The competition for alderman of a low income, mostly minority ward of Chicago works as backdrop for the racist progression of politics in modern times. The election is something that hangs over these characters and the film, but doesn’t really matter all that much. It’s more about the progression from traditional racist politics, made present by Jack’s dad and former politician, Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall), and the new version of racist politics brought on by Jack. He presents great minority led projects but on the back end is taking cuts to fund his campaign and life, a new version of slavery. His opponent isn’t much of a moral compass either because he is more about using politics to better his life than his communities. This look into politics is ugly and complex and probably truer than most of us would like to admit.
These two separate worlds are brought together by Henry Rawlings because the target of his last heist was Manning and Mulligan is the target for his next. McQueen ties this entire plot together beautifully because it is all given time to breathe. The film is slow paced because we spend time with each of the characters, understanding them and their motivations. Each of the women involved in the final heist have clear reasons to be there. Whether it is revenge, redemption, or in the case of the final edition to the team, Belle (a wonderful Cynthia Erivo), a way out, it is all clearly defined and understandable. The same can be said for the film’s largest antagonist, Jatemme Manning (Daniel Kaluuya), Jamal’s brother. He’s there to get Jamal’s money back and make sure everything is handled the way it is supposed to. Kaluuya steals the film in this role because he embraces the villainous nature of this character. The character is dynamic and jumps off the screen and even though he is an awful person you can’t help but want more of him, which is a testament to how great Kaluuya really is.
Widows is great, in part, because McQueen took the time to make each character interesting. He gave this incredible cast time to work and their work made their characters matter. By the time we get to the final heist you are so invested in every character that the tension is incredibly unsettling. It was a natural and very real tension because these characters mattered. The stakes were real and you felt it with each passing second of that sequence. In real time it only lasted a few minutes but it felt like an eternity because of that tension. When you make characters matter then tension will naturally come and the story as a whole will be better, and that was the case for Widows. There will be a lot of great films this year but you will be hard pressed to find one as good as Widows. It is perfectly crafted and compelling to watch. It’s entertaining, thrilling and beautiful. Widows is not just a perfect heist film, it is a perfect film.
5 out of 5 stars
Director: Steve McQueen Writers: Gillian Flynn & Steve McQueen Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Liam Neeson, Collin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya & Robert Duvall Release Date: November 16th Rated: R Runtime: 2 hours and 9 minutes