After specializing in a harrowing brand of art house misery in pictures like 12 Years a Slave, Hunger, and Shame, pretty much the last thing anyone expected out of Steve McQueen (no, not that one – the director) was a rollicking heist movie co-written by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl). It didn’t seem like the type of movie the beloved Viola Davis would headline either. Even better? Widows is fantastic and one of the best efforts in this genre to come along in many years.
The film starts so effectively and unexpectedly that it’s almost a shame to describe it. However, we’re talking about a spoiler that occurs before the title sequence, so what’s to be done about it? In a blisteringly intense montage, a collection of dudes you’d expect to star in this sort of movie (including Liam Neeson and Jon Bernthal) execute a heist and are promptly machine-gunned down and blown up by the cops. Left in the wake of the failed robbery are the gang’s widows. Veronica (Viola Davis) is left with nothing but memories of her son’s tragic death. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez – god it’s nice to see her in a movie directed by someone who actually recognizes her talents) has her store ripped away by loan sharks that she didn’t know about and gets left with a handful of kids to raise alone. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) has to fend for herself for the first time in her life, and her mother (Jacki Weaver) suggests signing up for a digital sugar daddy service, which is just gross.
Sad fates for all. Each is stuck dealing with a different series of obstacles that put the women into desperate situations in an uncaring world. Thankfully, Veronica has a solution. Digging through her late husband’s things, she finds a book containing all the information about the jobs that he pulled and the next one he had planned. At first, she tries to use it for blackmail but gets nothing. Then she decides to use the information to plan a heist. The target is Colin Farrell’s sleazeball Chicago politician, whose father (Robert Duvall) made a career off pretending to care about a disadvantaged and predominantly black district that he sucked dry. Meanwhile, another politician (Brian Tyree Henry) hopes to take over that community. He appears to have noble intentions, but is also a crime figure with a psychotic underling (Daniel Kaluuya, who’s genuinely terrifying) unafraid to do things like maim and murder for his boss.
That’s a hell of a lot of balls that McQueen has thrown into the air for what is at least theoretically his B-movie break from more serious fare. Thankfully, the guy juggles them all, even if it means that he ditches his usual lingering cinematic style for the most part. Every character feels fully fleshed-out and developed with little screen time wasted. Their dire situations are both politically motivated and the perfect means of establishing righteous revenge when the time comes. McQueen sneaks in some very pointed scenes (one long take with a camera mounted on the front of Farrell’s limo says so much about a particular brand of condescending racism while also elegantly dumping a truckload of exposition in a manner that’s pretty damn impressive).
This isn’t just a lark for the director. He has something to say and draws some remarkably true and pained performances out of his lead actresses and supporting actors. The always excellent Viola Davis will factor in the awards race, and deservingly so, but on a superficial level it’s a joy to see her command the screen as the type of genre movie badass any male contemporary of hers would have gotten to do long ago.
Beyond all the layers of quiet political outrage, Widows also works as a damn fine effective romp. Writing with Gillian Flynn was a brilliant call for McQueen for a variety of reasons. Beyond her gifts for harsh characterizations and subtle satire, she knows how to tell one hell of a ripping yarn. The story is filled with jaw-dropping gearshifts and twists, and McQueen nails all of them. He races his taught and knowingly pulpy tale toward a potent conclusion like a man who’s already a master of the form.
The film is gripping and exciting and angry and funny and smart and above all else entertaining. Widows is exactly the type of intelligent genre fare that the studio system should produce more of, executed with masterful craft by a filmmaker who elevates the material rather than looking down on it.