TORONTO, Canada—“No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off,” exclaims Veronica (Viola Davis) as she and her cohorts—the dream supporting cast of Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Cynthia Erivo—prepare to pull off a risky heist in Widows, Steve McQueen’s first feature since Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave. The operation masterminded by Veronica is no ordinary caper. Widowed after her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) and his partners are presumed dead in a robbery gone awry, Veronica recruits an all-female crew that includes the other women victimized by their spouses’ foolhardiness. Alice (Debicki), still smarting from her late husband’s abusiveness, and Linda (Rodriguez), whose con-artist hubby frittered away the earnings of his clothing store, join forces with Erivo’s feisty hairdresser-turned-getaway driver.
Although the script, a collaboration between McQueen and crime novelist Gillian Flynn (inspired by a celebrated British miniseries) occasionally bites off more than it can chew, the film, as might be expected from a director known for tackling somber topics such as sex addiction (Shame), Irish radical Bobby Sands’s hunger strike (Hunger) and, of course, slavery, is infinitely more ambitious than the usual genre exercise.
Unlike the Oceans series, Widows is far from a light-hearted romp. Set in the heart of Chicago, the plight of Veronica and her novice gang becomes inextricable from the corrupt machinations of local politicians. It turns out that the money that Harry and his friends stole belonged to Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), an up-and-coming African-American politician who is running for alderman in the 18th Ward and seeks to defeat Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the scion of a powerful but sleazy family dominated by his father Tom (Robert Duvall). The cynical, but clear-eyed, implication is that opponents of entrenched power are often as corrupt and manipulative as the power brokers they’re attempting to replace. And, as in old-time gangster films, it’s frequently difficult to differentiate the criminals from the lawmakers. Jamal, the respectable politician, is dependent on his trigger-happy brother, played with gleeful impetuousness by Daniel Kaluuya of Get Out and Black Panther fame.
In addition, while it would be far too glib to call Widows a neo-noir for the age of #MeToo, the women’s decision to offset the pain caused by their ne’er-do-well husbands by becoming outlaws themselves is rooted in a simmering anger toward male hubris. Davis’s beautifully crafted performance depicts a woman liberated by an ability to unleash her repressed rage. Her every facial expression conveys years of trying to cope with both the inequities of racism and the fickleness of men. Debicki, who uses her height (she’s 6’3’’) to her advantage, portrays a beautiful, but slightly gawky, woman adrift in the world of Chicago machismo. Injecting the film with some of its rare comic moments, she bumbles her way through an auction to purchase a van and then impersonates a helpless immigrant in order to solicit advice on how to buy some high-powered Glocks for the heist. Befuddled by her mother’s (Jacki Weaver) advice to become a call girl to raise cash, she ends up falling in love with her first client, a wealthy developer played by Lukas Haas. Rodriguez, slowly learning that her husband pulled the wool over her eyes for years, combines wistfulness with a newfound determination to leave the past in tatters.
Even though Widows sputters to a slightly unsatisfying conclusion—and is much less succinct than classic heist films of the noir era such as Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle and Kubrick’s The Killing—there is a considerable amount of cinematic bravura on display. The film’s opening moments, which segue with aplomb from Davis and Neeson’s early-morning snogging to his bloody exploits, are especially virtuosic. Sean Bobbitt’s exemplary cinematography is adept in capturing the sleek glass surfaces of Davis’s elegant lakeside apartment. Even though Widows’ critique of political skullduggery and male arrogance is pegged to a gimmicky plot device, it’s still a rousing piece of entertainment.