Everyone's seen heist movies. You know what happens: people (almost always guys) plan a big, elaborate scheme to steal a bunch of money (can be diamonds or bearer bonds or Faberge eggs or whatever), it's an arduous process, problems arise often because of the person or organization getting robbed, and the heist is carried out, either successfully or not. You get it. Steve McQueen's newest, Widows, is a heist movie, but it's also not about heists at all. It's about women taking charge of their own lives, it's about organized crime, it's about the corruptness of politics and the inefficacy of police, it's about race, class, biases, and ultimately it's a treatise on America at large. And, yes, things are stolen.Written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn, based on the 2002 miniseries of the same name by Lynda La Plante, Widows feels like it could be a whole season of The Wire, transplanted to Chicago. It's as much about the marked discrepancy between classes in a major metropolis as it is any usual crime capering. Great pains are taken to explore one particular ward in Chicago and only on brief occasions do we ever venture to the scenic river and skyscrapers of downtown. Having and not-having are foregrounded for our protagonists, who are trying to survive following a shared tragedy.
A group of women (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki) find themselves lost following the deaths of all their husbands. They were career criminals who died in a police shootout after a heist goes bad. Davis plays Veronica, whose husband Harry (Liam Neeson), was the mastermind of the group. We get the sense everyone in town knew Harry and pretty much everyone let him do his dirty work. But this time he stole $2 million from a particularly dangerous man, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a criminal running for Alderman to give his business dealings more leeway. And maybe to help the community. The money was burned up in the heist; nobody has it. But he still demands Veronica pay the debt. She lives a nice life thanks to Harry's dealings and she'll have to sell everything to pay Manning.After finding Harry's extensive notebook of crimes both past and future, she decides the only way to pay back Manning (and set herself up with a nice life) is to perform Harry's next heist herself. To do this, she recruits the wives of two of Harry's other dead teammates. Rodriguez's Linda has found herself the single parent of two kids and suddenly without the store she's put her heart and soul into thanks to her husband's gambling debts. Debicki's Alice is the woman raised to be arm candy, right back under the control of her mother (Jacki Weaver), and forced to become an escort to make money. They're all desperate, but none of them know how to do this crime. They'll have to improvise.It's a very common set-up, but it doesn't dwell in it for long. Manning is running against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the son of retiring Alderman Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall), and the Mulligans have controlled this largely poor district since time immemorial. Jack is not his father's son, and doesn't want to be a career politician, but can't find his way out. But to lose to Manning, who'd be the first African-American alderman of the ward, is a bridge too far. Manning's brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya, in cold and sadistic form), on the other hand, controls the criminal activities for his brother and desperately wants to put the squeeze on Veronica for her husband's notebook.As I said, a lot going on, and that's not even everybody. Cynthia Erivo plays a single mom who works a thousand hours a week and ends up the driver for Veronica's group. All of the women come from different backgrounds, classes, circumstances, and the film shows them judging each other for the various ways they live their life, but still banding together for this one job. Chicago is a city of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, and one amazing scene shows Farrell getting into a car after a rally in a poor black neighborhood and during his conversation, in an unbroken shot, we see his car drive from poverty, into a suddenly opulent white part of town before pulling up to his house. It only takes a couple minutes, perfectly encapsulating what McQueen is saying about Chicago and Anycity, USA.Much of the hows and whys of the story are left ambiguous or otherwise unexplored. It'd be nice to know more, but it's not really necessary. There are also moments where McQueen tries to engage with the theme of extreme grief that pops up in all of his films, but it doesn't get as fleshed out as it might otherwise. This is ostensibly a popcorn movie, after all. And Gillian Flynn is involved, so you can expect lots of twists. While the story overall is extremely satisfying, there are a few areas left under-served; the climax is great, but the denouement feels unfinished.Still, there's plenty to love here. Standout performances are Debicki, who has the largest character growth, from lost deer to extreme survivor; and Kaluuya, who is absolutely terrifying and sociopathic. Widows is the kind of movie needed by patrons who spend every day in Trump's America pulling their hair out, seething at the injustice being carried out in every facet of the country. It's not a feel-good movie, it's a think-good movie. Ocean's Eight this isn't, but it's an altogether bigger score.
4 out of 5
Images: 20th Century Fox