Sexism, racism and corruption get mixed in with crime drama in McQueen’s electric heist film
Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Viola Davis (Veronica Rawlings), Michelle Rodriguez (Linda), Elizabeth Debicki (Alice), Cynthia Erivo (Belle), Colin Farrell (Jack Mulligan), Brian Tyree Henry (Jamal Manning), Daniel Kaluuya (Jatemme Manning), Jacki Weaver (Agnieska), Carrie Coon (Amanda), Robert Duvall (Tom Mulligan), Liam Neeson (Harry Rawlings), Jon Bernthal (Florek), Garret Dillahunt (Bash), Lukas Haas (David)
A getaway goes wrong and Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his criminal gang all wind-up dead and their loot burned up. Their last job was cleaning out the election fund of gangster-turned-electoral-candidate Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Manning believes he’s owed a debt by Harry’s widow Veronica (Viola Davis). On the hock for millions, Veronica has no choice but to recruit the widows of Harry’s gang to help her pull off the next job Harry planned: cleaning out the campaign fund of Manning’s electoral rival Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell).
Adapted from an 80s British TV mini-series, Widows has been run through Steve McQueen’s creative brain, emerging as a compelling, beautifully shot crime drama mixing social, racial and gender commentary with blistering action. It takes a traditionally masculine genre – the crime caper – and places at its heart a group of women motivated by desperation and survival rather than the lure of lucre.
What’s particularly interesting is that none of these women fit the bill of the sort of person you expect to arrange a daring heist. Viola Davis’ Veronica is a retired teachers’ union rep; Elizabeth Debicki an abuse victim, treated terribly by her husband and selfish mother; Michelle Rodriguez a shop owner desperately trying to give her kids a chance, despite her husband’s reckless gambling. Even the driver they hire, played by Cynthia Erivo, is a hairdresser and babysitter. These women are a world away from the ruthless criminals you’d expect to pull off this kind of operation.
It’s probably why they are routinely underestimated and patronised by men. Veronica is advised clear her debt by selling either everything she owns and disappear. As with the rest of the women, the world expects her to put up and shut up. These are women defined by their husbands and the expectation that their needs are subordinate to others’. Debicki’s Alice is all-but pushed into escort work by her demanding mother, while Rodriguez’s Linda is blamed by her mother-in-law for her husband’s death. But these women have a steely survival instinct that makes them determined and (eventually) ruthless enough to take this job on.
Davis is superb as a determined and morally righteous woman, whose principles are more flexible than she thinks. She efficiently (and increasingly sternly) applies her organisational skills to planning the heist, pushing her crew to adapt her own professionalism. Davis wonderfully underplays Veronica’s grief, not only at the loss of her husband but also the recent death of her son (shot by police officers while reaching to answer his phone behind the wheel of an expensive car – in front of a wall of Obama “Hope” posters, a truly striking visual image).
Her co-stars are equally impressive. Debicki has mastered the mix of vulnerability and strength behind characters like this (how many times has she played suffering, glamourous gangster molls?). Her Alice gains the self-belief to push back against those exploiting her. Rodriguez beautifully balances grief at the loss of her husband with fury at the financial hole he has left her in. Erivo gets the smallest role, but makes Bella dry, loyal and sharp. All four of them use the way men underestimate them – seeing them as widows, wives, weak or sex objects – to plan out their heist.
The reversal of gender expectations crosses over with the social political commentary McQueen wants to explore. This sometimes works a treat: the flashback to the shooting of Veronica’s son is shockingly effective. But the film’s dives into the Chicago political scene and the deep class divisions in the city don’t always have the impact they should. There is a marvellous shot – all in one take, mounted on the car bonnet – as Farrell’s Mulligan travels (in a few minutes) from a photo op in a slum back to his palatial family home, emphasising how closely extreme wealth and poverty sit side-by-side in America.
Both candidates are corrupted in different ways. Jamal Manning – a knife behind a smile from Brian Tyree Henry – is a thug talking the talk to line his pockets. Farrell’s Mulligan has more standards – and you wish for more with this fascinating put-upon son part on-the-take, part genuinely wanting to help. His domineering dad – an imperiously terrifying Robert Duvall, who wants to backseat drive his son in office – demeans his son, shouts racial slurs and bullies everyone around him. Politics: your choice is the latest off-spring of a semi-corrupt dynasty or a literal criminal.
But the film doesn’t quite find the room to explore these issues in quite as much detail as you feel it could: it’s a strong hinterland of inequality, but you want more. McQueen however, does have a gift for unique character details that speak volumes: the women’s operation is shadowed by an electric Daniel Kaluuya, as Manning’s calm yet psychotic brother, who listens to self-education podcasts on Black history and shoots people without a second thought. He, of course, underestimates the women as much as everyone else. That’s as much of a political statement as anything else: none of the men in this film seem to even begin to think that they could be in a world which is truly equal.
The film adds a late act reveal that doesn’t quite work – and the film as a whole is trying to do a little too much – but it’s a confirmation of what a gifted and superb film-maker Steve McQueen is. McQueen shoots even conventional scenes in unique and interesting ways – check out his brilliant use of mirrors throughout – uses editing superbly to set tone and is brilliant at drawing the best from talented actors. Widows is crammed full of terrifically staged scenes and gallops along with pace and excitement. It’s a fine example of a great director turning a genre film into something deeper.