Widows is a high quality thriller/drama, an ensemble piece that dips into well worn territory – the heist that goes wrong. It succeeds in keeping you guessing with tension and twists, superb acting, and most of all a damn good story told from the perspective not of the men who undertake the heist (who end up as supporting players) but their female partners. Given the pedigree of its creators, this is no surprise. Widows is based on the British tv series of the same name from the 1980’s, written by Lynda (Prime Suspect) La Plante. Its screenplay comes from Gillian (Gone Girl) Flynn and by Steve (12 Years a Slave) McQueen, with McQueen also directing.
The women in Widows are caught up in the crimes of their partners, those crimes perpetrated not only against society in general, but against the women themselves. So Veronica (Viola Davis) is the wife of gang boss Harry (Liam Neeson), who lives a fancy lifestyle but with no assets in her own name; Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) is struggling to keep a small business alive and raise her two children; and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) suffers violent abuse from husband Florek (Jon Bernthal). But in his last failed heist Harry has ripped off a rival gang, and because Harry and his mates are no more, rival gang leader Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry), backed by his brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), put the heat on Veronica to pay the money back. Veronica’s only way of doing that, is to pull off a heist of her own, aided by the other widows, and by Belle (Cynthia Erivo) a babysitter for Linda who is drawn into the plan.
The story is played out in Chicago, in the middle of an election race for a local ward, where gang boss Jamal is challenging the incumbent Jack (Colin Farrell) the son of the previous long serving councilman Tom (Robert Duvall). Both Jack and Jamal court the backing of Reverend Wheeler (Jon Michael Hill), who would sway many votes.
It’s worth spending some time laying all this out because while it might appear rather complicated (and I suppose it is) all these moving parts make for a constantly engaging story, and credit here to director McQueen and film editor Joe Walker, who do a good job of drawing you into the story and keeping you guessing at the same time.
The backdrop is corruption, both criminal and moral, and the power of the film comes from a group of women who are determined not to sit back and be swamped by the circumstances they are confronted with. This is no tongue in cheek women’s caper as was Ocean’s 8, but a serious and gritty drama. Veronica, Linda, Alice and Belle are an odd mix of characters, but their diversity gives them strength. And it’s refreshing to see the storytellers here turn some old stereotypes on their heads. The smartest of the widows, and its leader, is black (Davis), while the member of the group dealing with physical abuse (Debicki) is white.
And the actors here do the material justice. Davis’ Veronica is the centre of the drama, no more tellingly portrayed than in one scene where we see her confront the true nature of her husband’s morality. Davis is both tough and vulnerable, and above all, courageous. The other actors amongst the widows all perform superbly well, and I particularly enjoyed the work of Erivo as Belle. Belle is an outsider but joins the group to stand shoulder to shoulder with the other women .
The men in the drama are also worthy of note. Kaluuya’s gang enforcer Jatemme is genuinely brutal and scary, and I thought Robert Duvall’s brief appearances as old time politician Tom were fantastic. And in one of the briefest but most impactful cameos of many a film, Jon Bernthal gives us a menacing and abusive husband, in literally just a few seconds.
So I give Widows a big thumbs up. Just as a few decades ago Scorsese set a platform with Goodfellas, and Mann with Heat, McQueen here offers similar quality, but told from a different, and welcome, point of view. Highly recommended.