“Widows” may be one of the most subversive heist films ever made. Based on a British mini-series from the 1980’s it stars Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo as four women bonded by debts left to some very bad men by their late husbands. It is part caper flick and part survival story that makes strong statements on hot button topics like sexism, poverty, prejudice, power and police brutality.
Set in modern day Chicago, the action in the story begins when Harry (Liam Neeson) and his crew of robbers gunned down and blown up after a heist gone wrong. His widow, teachers’ union executive Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis), is left with a $2 million debt to local crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Manning is a tough guy attempting a stab at legitimacy by entering politics, running against corrupt local alderman, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell). Manning wants his money and, after mistreating Veronica’s dog, gives her just one month to come up with the cash. “That money was meant to buy me a new life,” snarls Jamal. “That money was about my life. Now it is about yours.” If she can’t come up with the cash she’ll have to deal with psychopathic strong arm Jatemme Manning (Daniel Kaluuya).
It is a dire situation but Veronica has a plan, or rather, a notebook and a plan. Harry left behind a handwritten book detailing every bribe he ever paid and blueprints for a future heist. Putting the widows of her late husband’s hoodlum crew to work (Debicki, Rodriguez, and non-widow Cynthia Erivo), she creates a gang of her own to steal $5 million cash and save their lives. “I’m the only thing standing between you and a bullet in your head,” says Veronica.
Co-written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn, the author and screenwriter of “Gone Girl,” “Widows” is a tightly constructed thriller that builds with each passing moment. McQueen takes his time with the material, allowing the audience to get to know the characters, to learn what’s at stake if this caper goes south.
First and foremost is Davis, fierce and formidable. Her evolution from executive and unsuspecting wife to criminal mastermind is emotional, logical and very motivated.
Opposite her is Debicki as a damaged woman whose own mother suggests prostitution as a career choice to make things meet. Her shift from abused woman to a person completely in control of her life and the way she is perceived—“It’s mine to be ashamed of or be proud of,” she says. “It’s my life.”—is one of the film’s true pleasures.
The cast is universally strong. Farrell could use a different accent coach but Kaluuya is evil personified, a psychopath with dead eyes and an attitude.
“Widows” is a stylish art house heist flick that pays tribute to the genre but layers in not only intrigue but also social commentary about racism, the cost of political power and the imbalance of power between some of the female characters and their male counterparts. The thrills will appeal both to your heart and head.