Writer/director Steve McQueen is not known for having a light outlook on the world. His first three feature films — Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave — are all tough watches in their own ways, and ones — despite the Oscar success of 12 Years a Slave — that tend not to appeal to mainstream audiences.
At first blush, it would appear he’s made a bit of left turn into more popular fare with Widows, but its popcorn action thriller surface allows him to drop in some social commentary drama when you’re not suspecting it. The film starts out with a literal bang as a team of Chicago robbers, led by Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) conduct an explosive heist that leaves them all dead.
Left to pick up the pieces are their wives, including Harry’s wife, Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and Amanda (Carrie Coon). Each had been willing to condone her husband’s criminal behavior, or at least look the other way, but the deaths find each of them struggling just to get by.
When Veronica comes into possession of Harry’s notebook, which details another job worth $5 million, she tries to convince the others to pick up where their husbands left off. Concurrently, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) are facing off in an election for control of one of the city’s wards, a fight that happens to overlap with the widows’ quest.
The film, co-written by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), has plenty to offer for those who like crime movies. The opening scene sets the tone for everything to come, and the various twists and turns the story takes keep the audience on their toes throughout.
But the film is not set in modern-day Chicago by accident. The violence that rends the city on a daily basis is commented on, especially through the character of Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), Jamal’s brother. McQueen and Flynn also touch on police brutality, racism, political corruption, classism, and more, with the topics undeniable even though they don’t become the sole focus of the film.
The emphasis on women makes the film even more effective. While each of the widows was reliant on her husband in her own way, none of them becomes the stereotypical damsel in distress. Each has strength, determination, and intelligence that allows the group to not wallow in self-pity.
Davis is, for all intents and purposes, the lead actor in the film, and the Oscar and Emmy winner puts in yet another great performance. She brings just the right amount of strength and vulnerability to a character that requires both. Rodriguez, Debicki, Farrell, Kaluuya, and Henry each get plenty of time to shine in their roles, and Robert Duvall makes an impact in a small role as Farrell's father.
McQueen has much more on his mind than just entertainment with Widows, which is what makes it that much better than standard genre fare. The film is less about the results of a heist and more about the redistribution of power to those who need it most.