Widows opens with an intensely intimate moment - a husband and wife, together for decades, sharing a quiet morning. Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis), Chicago teacher's union delegate, and Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), thief, passionately kiss and hold each other in bed.
It then slam-cuts to a violent, botched heist where Harry and his crew desperately try to evade the gunfire of both the gang they robbed and the cops.
Director Steve McQueen, cowriter Gillian Flynn, and editor Joe Walker intercut the heist-gone-horribly-wrong with brief but vivid sketches of the robbers with their wives. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) owns and runs a clothing store, but is constantly broke because her husband Carlos wastes all the money from his jobs and her store on gambling.
Cut to a car chase, spectacularly captured entirely from within the escape van.
Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) stays home and lives to enjoy her husband Florek's money, and him when he isn't abusive.
Cut to the thieves reaching the hideout where they have a second escape vehicle, and seem home free, only to be cut down by countless SWAT assault rifle bullets. The cash goes up in flames.
It's a riveting and wrenching opening to a terrific yarn. But while McQueen delivers the pulpy goods when the story reaches them, the film is heavily balanced toward a furious anger at a world that seems broken on every level, and the grief and scars that causes.
Now their widows are left to pick up the pieces. Ultimately, they band together to pull off the heist Harry had been planning next, entangling themselves in the process with the political power struggles that have made one Chicago neighborhood an impoverished hellhole. Aging, wealthy Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall) has spent his life using a combination of political power and mob-like enforcement to hold an iron grip on the southside precinct, taking bribes and kickbacks and keeping the lower classes - and especially minorities - down. Now, his son Jack (Colin Farrell) is being set up to take his place as he runs for alderman of the district. Jack, however, is conflicted; he's horrified at his father's racism and cruelty, but has limited interest in actually running -- and was so brought up in his father's toxicity that he barely understands what the lines of corruption actually are.
Jack's opponent is from the streets - crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). In the past, the Mulligans were effectively unopposed, but redistricting has giving an outsider a chance, and Manning has bloodily built plenty of connections of his own... and a vicious enforcer in his brother Jatemme (a chilling Daniel Kaluuya).
Harry Rawlings' botched heist wiped out Manning's cash for the alderman campaign.
All three widows have been left with nothing. Linda's business is taken by her late husband's creditors. Alice spent the money as fast as she got it. And Veronica has had it made very clear to her that she will repay Jamal every cent her husband stole.
Through these outlets and other subplots, McQueen portrays a cycle of violence, poverty, and cruelty. The characters have choices between improving the lives of the community, doing what they have to in order to survive, or serving their current self-interest at the expense of whoever is in their way. The self-interest forces those who might improve things into desperately clawing for survival.
There's also confusion within the characters about which they're doing. Tom Mulligan truly believes that his oppression of minorities and lower classes and his iron grip on power are necessary for his family to survive. Jack genuinely wants to help the community, but is still wrapped up in criminal activities. Jamal knows better than either of them how hellish the streets are, but so long as he's got his degree of power and prestige, he's happy to keep it as a hell if that's what it takes.
For the widows, these power plays, both on the larger scale by these politicians, and by the trap their husbands have left them in, leave them reeling to do what they must to survive. Veronica folds her emotions inwards as much as possible, giving the world nothing but a chilling coldness. Alice keeps the good life flowing by turning to high-class prostitution (partly on influence of her mother).
Desperate for a driver, they try to draw first a fourth widow who also lost a husband, Amanda (Carrie Coon). But Amanda pushes them away. They turn to Belle (Cynthia Ervo), Linda's babysitter, who turns out to have a remarkable amount of street smarts. In a way, the shorthand of her being completely on board and ready for the heist feels abrupt and underdeveloped, but it fits the film's theme. She lives in the district upon which the Mulligans and Mannings have wreaked havoc for their own gain; of course she can drive a getaway car, owns her own gun, and is up for some wealth redistribution in her favor.
All the widows but Alice have children - or have had them. Veronica's and Harry's son died before the story began; the awful tragedy of his death is teased early, but fully revealed late with a full dose of horror. Linda feels immense guilt about having to ignore her children while working on the heist; Belle has to ignore her own daughter to watch Linda's kids. Amanda is nursing a baby. These children only make the depths of the trap and the stakes of the heist all the greater.
If this massive web of subplots and minor characters seems overly complex, it is, to some degree. It's more complicated and wandering than the genre's all-time masterpiece Heat, with only 2/3 the length. It also means the bulk of the movie is low on the pulpy thrills the plot suggests. The opening and climactic sequences are thrilling, there's a very effective plot twist late in the second act, and the moments where Kaluuya's Jatemme is unleashed have the electric jolt of a lightning storm. But most of the film wanders through the nooks and crannies of its world, fleshing out tiny corners. For the most part, this makes it a vivid and powerful experience, but it also means some elements feel underserved.
The political tension between Jack and Jamal is beautifully built, but resolved almost entirely off-screen. This is frustrating for both characters, but especially for Jack, who may be the most complex character in a film full of them. One of the film's most memorable sequences locks the camera to the outside of the car, as Jack argues with his secretary (but really himself) about his conflict between hatred of his father. We see not their conversation, but the scenery quickly morphing from filthy poverty to gentrified wealth, as so many cities do now.
Another scene suggests his corruption is deeper than we realize, while his final discussion with Jamal implies that he found the best of his soul and is willing to live that regardless. But there seem to be moments, particularly in the final act, missing from the film, which would let his character gel completely.
Yet whenever McQueen's net seems to be spreading too wide for his own good, the strength of the performances keeps it grounded. Viola Davis, unsurprisingly, is a force of nature. She's a towering presence, tough as nails yet deeply wounded. Her darkest moments are heartbreaking.
It's wonderful to see Michelle Rodriguez finally get a role with meat on it. Her starmaking turn in Girlfight showed she was a powerhouse, but none of her subsequent roles have given her a chance to show it. Finally, here, she gets to be raw and real, proving once and for all that she is a legit great actress wasted by an industry that doesn't know what to do with her. (I like the Fast and Furious movies and love her in them, but they don't come close to fully exploiting her talent.)
Debicki's Alice gets to be the most charming and fun of the girls for much of it. Alice turns out to be more of a chameleon than even she realized; she takes to hooking reasonably well, conning people for information very well, and thieving turns out to fit her like a glove. Her towering height (she's 6-foot-2) gives her vulnerability a fascinating contrast.
Cynthia Ervo gives her second strong noir performance of the fall, following her delightful work in Bad Times at the El Royale. Her role may be underwritten, but she powers through her every scene with such confidence and skill that she feels as vivid in the moment as the others.
The supporting cast is a gallery of great names living up to their reputations. In particular, Farrell, Kaluuya, and, briefly, Neeson stand out. Farrell digs remarkably deep into a character complex enough to lead his own film. Kaluuya, as mentioned, is terrifying at every turn. And Neeson, in his short opening moments and flashbacks, gets to combine his action star bonafides with humanity and even surprising vulnerability.
In the film's final moments, McQueen shines a ray of hope into his grim world. The final shot has Veronica finally warm enough to try to connect with one of her fellow heisters instead of hold her away. Perhaps, McQueen suggests, if the worst of the trash is taken out, and some wealth effectively redistributed, breaking the power, a better world can be rebuilt, and the cycle broken. It's a quiet, soulful catharsis. If there are moments and elements that don't quite pay off, if it feels like there might be half an hour of much-needed material missing, these are merely minor problems. In a film that so powerfully builds and explores broken people in a broken world and looks for ways to fix them, and weaves them within a slow but thrilling pulpy thriller, a few messy subplots are easily forgivable. This is a terrific film, by turns gripping, fun, sad, and thought-provoking.
JACK: What I've learned from men like my father and your husband is that you reap what you sow.
VERONICA: Let's hope so.
Director: Steve McQueen
Producers: Steve McQueen, Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Arnon Milchan
Writers: Steve McQueen, Gillian Flynn, based on the ITV Miniseries by Lynda La Plante
Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Ervo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson
MPAA Rating: R for violence, sex, and language.
Budget: $42 million
Box Office: $42 million domestic, $75 million worldwide. Might go up a bit if it catches more Oscar attention that expected and gets a re-release.