There may be no greater overlooked genre, than that of the heist film. That’s largely because most people tend to focus in their minds on the action and not what surrounds it. More than any other subject, the concept of a heist film is like unsculpted clay. It can be anything. A fantasy. A comedy. Even a female led dramatic pulp thriller with pangs of the political and class struggles, bubbling under the surface. If that sounded at all rather specific, that’s because it’s the closest way to describe Steve McQueen’s glorious Widows. A film bursting with so many ideas and characters that only a master filmmaker dare take on the task of making it.
It all begins with a bang. A literal jolt to senses, seemingly heralding a bold and exciting new action vision. The opening heist is captured in raw intensity. The camera focused intimately on four men trying to flee the scene of a botched job, while making sense of the situation they find themselves in. Just as suddenly as the film begins, the would be leads of any other film, finds themselves engulfed in flames and a hail of bullets. If McQueen kept this pace for the whole film, it would be an unrivaled spectacle. Yet that’s not his intention here. It’s not about the action, but what comes after. Those left behind to pick up the pieces. Lives shattered, not only by loss, yet the consequences of those no longer around to be held accountable for their actions.
Shortly after mourning the loss of her husband, Henry (Liam Neeson), Veronica Rawlings receives a late night visit from local gangster, Jamaal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Turns out the job of the opening, Henry pulled with his team (Coburn Goss, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Jon Berenthal), took $2 million out of his pocket. Money he now deems Veronica owes him, within a month. Strapped for cash, but armed with a notebook of her husband’s detailing one of his future jobs, she ventures into uncharted territory. Enlisting the help of 2 other widows (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki). While Veronica convinces the others to do the job to save themselves, she does it out of sheer survival instinct. She was broken before this. She’ll continue to be broken once it’s finished.
Meanwhile, across town, a tale of political survival unfolds. Jamaal’s need to reclaim his lost money isn’t simply born out of financial anguish, but a key component in helping secure a spot as Alderman of the 18th Ward in Chicago. A position contested by Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell). Both would come across as tragic figures, were it not for their nefarious dealings. Jamaal, coming from a criminal background, not only has to deal with public perception, but the finicky nature of his sociopathic brother, Jatemme (a seething Daniel Kaluuya). Mulligan, believed to be a shoe-in due to his racist father (Robert Duvall) previously occupying the seat, is no better. He advertises himself as a champion of minorities, though uses his initiative to give them business, as a means to skim off the top. Their stories may seem ancillary, at first, but weave through the narrative with great importance.
No where is Steve McQueen’s control on better display in Widows, than a glorious single take car ride. One that charts no only a character’s internal struggle, but also the geographical dividing lines between those in privilege and those struggling to make ends meat. After leaving a contentious meeting attempting to get Manning, Mulligan enters his limo and heads home. Instead of showing the action inside, McQueen and his long standing cinematographer Sean Bobbitt shoot the exterior. As the vehicle rolls along, it places a focus on the film’s most important, yet silent, character: that of Chicago itself.
McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn choose the perfect backdrop, in Chicago, for their twisty tale of survival, corruption, legacy and betrayal. The Windy City has often been the center of contentious political races, while also harboring a constantly escalating death toll. This is a story where a key secondary component concerns the extension of the L-train’s Green Line. There’s no mistake in their decision to have the majority of characters be Black, Latinx or Polish. Farrell’s notoriously slippery Irish accent, isn’t out of place, given the city’s diverse population. What it does is add another layer to an already rich tapestry. One that’s just as believably a reality, as it is a work of fiction.
Viola Davis is an absolute powerhouse here. What most do with words, she does with her eyes. Where others would flail, she pauses, before taking command. None of this is to imply her co-stars are any less great. Rodriguez shows layers most will hope she taps into in future parts. Debicki transforms from a woman initially content to be pushed around, into a force of confidence and purpose. Cynthia Erivo, as a hairdresser turned getaway driver, continues to show she deserves to be cast in absolutely everything. Separating Davis is how she handles extra character details. Take her dog, for instance. Other films would regard it as something to payoff in the third act. Here, it’s merely part of a woman who’s lost everything. Taking it everywhere and clutching it tightly, as means to protect the last delicate piece of herself she feels she has some control over.
In Widows, conflict is the name of the game. From those in power to those who desperately crave it to those just looking to survive, it governs all things. How the characters allow conflict to decide their fate, is what makes it something special to behold. So many other films would limit itself with a narrow focus in which to tell its devastating mini crime saga. Here they shoot for the moon. Managing to roping in societal, gender and class struggles in this sprawling masterwork. Creating what isn’t just one of the best heist films in recent years, but a truly great film, in general.