Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn’s Empathetic Genre Masterwork
Transformed by death. That’s what it means to be a widow, defined by your relation to someone else. There’s a sense of possession beyond the grave, a kind of haunting. But also a liberation.
The killer heist film Widows is both burial and rebirth, a cool caper peppered with vivid characters, high stakes, sharp plot points and jagged reversals. Viola Davis is the linchpin as Veronica Rawlings, a steely woman with a magnetic marriage to shady thief Harry (Liam Neeson). She’s devastated by a warehouse explosion that wipes out her husband and all of his crew. But she’s also fearing for her life. Turns out Harry was robbing $2 million from crook-turned-politician Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry). Manning needs that dough for his longshot election campaign against first-time candidate and alderman scion Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell). And now he’s threatening to kill her if she doesn’t pay up.
Thankfully, Rawlings finds a notebook where Harry wrote down all his schemes. And there’s one job left that will get her the money she needs. So this neophyte needs to turn pro fast, reaching out to the wives of Harry’s dead henchmen for an assist.
WIDOWS ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: Gillian Flynn, Steve McQueen
Starring: Viola Davis, Liam Neeson, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya, Robert Duvall
Running time: 129 min.
Those fellow widows are just as driven as Rawlings. Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) is losing her clothing store because her deadbeat gambler husband used it as collateral. Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki), after surviving her physically abusive husband, is now shilling herself online to high-rolling lowlifes. And Linda’s babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo) literally sprints from her beautician job to kid gigs just to make ends meet.
The result is a crash course in lawlessness, with these victims of circumstance tackling their on-the-job training with a lot of anxiety and more than a bit of relish. There’s a sense of freedom in their desperation, a renewal that’s terrifying and enthralling. Empowering? You bet. But there are consequences to actions, and each one of them ends up suffering in her own way.
Widows is based on a 1980s British TV show, and Steve McQueen enlisted Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn to help him condense and adapt the series into an updated American thriller. The material is an outlier in the Oscar-winning auteur’s mannered arthouse career, which includes his stately social drama
Twelve Years a Slave (itself a follow up to his stately social dramas Shame and Hunger). It’s a pivot to multiplex popcorn-picture territory. But the only people cashing out are the mourning title characters. McQueen is too busy reinvigorating the game.
The best movies, especially juicy genre flicks, find ways to sneak indelible details into the broad strokes. Rawlings carries around a white lapdog, her constant companion who’s put into peril and has a nose for deception. Gunner wields her tightly wrapped cocktail dresses like a weapon. The story machinations are delicious, but so too are the indelible players who come across as stubbornly empathetic even when they’re being defiant. A quickly-sketched character like Belle epitomizes the concision, despite her limited screen time. She’s riveting to watch, with her platinum-blonde crew cut and limitless spunk.
Mulligan seems like a rich-boy jerk, until it’s revealed how his own worth as a man is so intertwined with the legacy of his blustering, racist father (Robert Duvall). And even Manning, clearly the villain, still contains layers of moral complexity—although his psychopathic brother (Daniel Kaluuya) is straight-up terrifying.
The triumph of Widows is the fact that McQueen has orchestrated a sociopolitical symphony out of a sharp-elbowed revenge caper. Emotional intelligence, true insight into human behavior and the compassion that comes along with it, always seems to be lost when Hollywood delivers its empty-headed thrill-rides. This time, though, the audience won’t feel so robbed.