How does a politically charged thriller from Academy Award-winning director Steve McQueen, co-written by Gone Girl scribe Gillian Flynn, and starring Academy Award-winner Viola Davis come out and hardly make an impact on the pop culture landscape? I wish there was some simple answer as to why Widows failed to connect with broader audiences but thankfully the film is now available on Blu-ray and Digital HD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. Now audiences can see the brilliance they missed in the theaters as Widows is a masterfully directed, thoughtfully written heist film that goes far beyond the surface of its genre.
The opening of Widows is a masterclass of establishing character and scenario. McQueen cuts between a heist gone wrong by Harry Rawling (Liam Neeson) and his crew including Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rufio), Florek (Jon Bernthal), and Jimmy (Coburn Goss) and the daily routine of these criminals’ wives – Veronica (Davis), Harry’s wife; Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Carlos’ wife; Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), Florek’s wife; and Belle (Cynthia Erivo), who is a babysitter who looks after Linda’s children. Harry and his crew are unable to elude the authorities and all perish when their getaway vehicle explodes. In just a few short minutes Widows establishes the stakes of the story and the way these women’s daily routines are shattered by the deaths of their criminal husbands.
The failed heist leaves behind more than just shattered households. Harry and his crew were robbing Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a crime boss with lofty political ambitions. Jamal and his ruthless brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) want the stolen sum returned by Veronica within a month or face the deadly consequences. However, Harry planned his heists in advance and left behind meticulous notes on his next job. Veronica’s plan is to carry out Harry’s heist with the help of her fellow widows in Linda and Alice, and they’re later joined by Belle.
Widows doesn’t just play out in the criminal underworld of Chicago, it also plays out on the political workd of the Windy City. Jamal’s political aspirations have him running for alderman of his ward. His opposition is the political dynasty of the Mulligan family, the younger Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) having succeeded his father Tom (Robert Duvall). But this is a Chicago politics – the old guard and the new guard both have their hands dirtied by corruption and the power struggle plays out at the ballot box and on the streets.
The political aspects of Widows is what helps elevate beyond being just another heist picture. Here McQueen and Flynn draw a direct line between the violent and ruthless gangsters and a political dynasty that has used public service to line their pockets. They’re each corrupt though their difference are mere tactics. The Mulligan political dynasty is a contentious one, as Jack reluctantly takes up the mantle of his father. However, their criminality is of the more respectable kind than their Manning counterparts, as the Mulligans use a program of small business loans to receive kickbacks from those they’ve publicly helped.
As the Manning brothers, the combination of Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya are astonishing to behold. Kaluuya, the breakout star from Get Out, is absolutely terrifying as Jatemme. One scene where his hardened character stares down a freestyling rapper without uttering a word is haunting. Whereas Kaluuya is always an intimidating presence, a force whose appearance signals the threat of violence, Brian Tyree Henry’s Jamal is more of a Jekyll and Hyde-type character. He has to put on a public face, an affable smile as he campaigns for public office. Behind the scenes, though, he can flip in a second from affable to terrible. In a film overflowing with memorable performances, the duo of Kaluuya and Henry might be the most impactful.
As you could guess by the title, it’s the women of Widows that are the driving force of the film. A lot of credit has to go to the screenplay by McQueen and Flynn, as they completely shun overly simplistic female characters driven only by the trauma of their husbands dying. These women are forced into an unthinkable situation because of their husbands, yes, but these are women not defined by the men in their lives. Viola Davis is astonishing as Veronica, a woman who publicly puts up a façade of someone with ice running through their veins. But there are cracks to that exterior, as exemplified by a painful scream towards the start of the film. Michelle Rodriguez brings the kind of toughness you’d expect her to bring to her role, but it’s a toughness that’s rooted in cynicism after her livelihood was taken from her due to her dead husband’s outstanding debts.
But the most interesting character in Widows is Elizabeth Dibecki’s Alice. In the few scenes we see of Alice with her husband, she’s bearing the marks of his physical abuse. In the aftermath of his demise, we see the origins of her acceptance of abuse in the cruel treatment at the hands of her mother Agnieszka (Jacki Weaver). Alice’s story is one of the cycle of abuse, how she came to believe being assaulted and berated was normal. Dibecki’s brutalized character has to pull herself out of a rut of perpetual degradation by those who claim to care for her, and her means of escape just happens to be pulling off a daring heist.
For all the moving parts in Widows – and there are a lot – it’s truly amazing how the screenplay by Flynn and McQueen never loses track of its characters amidst the escalating intrigue and various twists and turns along the way. McQueen and Flynn have taken a cast loaded with A-list actors and created an amazing ensemble with uniquely defined characters. The interpersonal drama that plays out between all these different factions escalates, and never once does a character’s actions seem out of place. Everything about the characters of Widows feels fresh even if they’re rooted in old fashioned archetypes of ruthless gangsters and corrupt politicians.
A few years from now people will talk about Widows as a masterpiece of its era. People will ponder why Steve McQueen’s most accessible film was ignored by audiences and completely shutout of awards nominations. There’s no simple explanation either. Widows is just one these great movies that for one reason or another didn’t connect with contemporary audiences, but its construction is so excellent in every facet of its being that time will ultimately hold it in high esteem. You may have missed Widows in theaters but it’s not too late to rectify that mistake. If I were you, I’d get right on it because people will be talking about Widows for years to come.
A brilliant heist film with strong political aspects, Steve McQueen’s Widows may have been overlooked by audiences and ignored by awards voters but this future classic will endure as genre classic that’s thrilling and thoughtful in equal measure.