If you were to take bets on what Steve McQueen’s passion project would be, few would guess ‘a film based on an ’80s ITV drama about women carrying out a heist’. Over the past decade McQueen has made a name for himself directing harrowing dramatic features such as Shame and 12 Years a Slave – with Widows, he turns his considerable talent and deft understanding of the human condition to a new challenge and a new genre.
Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) is bereft when her husband (Liam Neeson) dies along with his criminal crew in a job gone wrong, but has little time to mourn as it emerges Henry left a debt of $2 million behind. Menaced by the Manning brothers (Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya) she devises a plan to get the money, and turns to the widows of her late husband’s accomplices in order to pull it off. Meanwhile, Tom Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and his father Jack (Robert Duvall) gear up for a political election which intersects with Veronica’s plans.
McQueen does what he does best, creating a fully-realised world containing complex and compelling characters while once again demonstrating his stylistic flair. Intricate mirror shots and one particularly canny conversation in a car are standout set-pieces, as McQueen presents modern-day Chicago as a city built on corruption and exploitation.
Power struggles are a way of life for every character: Veronica attempts to fix her husband’s mess; Mulligan faces up to the entrenched racial imbalance within the city to bolster his slick political legacy; and the Manning brothers eye government office as a means of escaping the dirty grind of their troubled past. Although it’s possible to simply enjoy Widows as a taut crime drama with some exceptional twists, it’s an equally compelling commentary on gender and racial imbalance in America, as well as a study of complex, flawed characters in desperate situations.
Davis delivers a knockout performance as the ringleader of the scheme, combining powerful stoicism with private vulnerability as a woman driven to desperation during a time of crisis. Elizabeth Debicki is equally remarkable as Alice Gunner, who is constantly beaten down by her mother and all the men she’s ever met. Her transformation from submissive waif into canny, world-wise creature is bewitching, and confirms that she is a force to be reckoned with beyond her brilliant performance in Jennifer Fox’s abuse drama, The Tale.
Where the Oceans franchise is charismatic and fizzy, Widows is dark and frantic, concerned with the risks people take out of desperation or greed. The stakes feel real, and McQueen positions the story within the context of the world we live in. While most heist movies are about characters acting out of a desire for excitement or coveting some priceless object, for the women of Widows, it’s a means to an end – a means to escape. In fact, it’s not really about the heist at all. It’s about how inherently unfair the current world order is, and how if you don’t learn to fight for what’s yours, you’re liable to get eaten alive.