Prestige. That's the word that would pop into just about anyone's mind when looking at the cast and crew behind Widows. There's director Steve McQueen, returning to the chair for the first time since he won Best Picture for 12 Years a Slave. There's co-writer (with McQueen) Gillian Flynn, whose first script was a collaboration with David Fincher, the smash hit adaptation of her novel Gone Girl. There's cast headliner Viola Davis, less than two years removed from her Oscar-winning turn in Fences. And there's a murderer's row of talent behind her: Liam Neeson, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Michelle Rodriguez, Jacki Weaver, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Carrie Coon, Lukas Haas, Garret Dillahunt, Jon Bernthal, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo. Hans Zimmer provided the score.
One movie should not be allowed to have this much talent behind it. Share the love, Steve.
An adaptation of a British miniseries from the 1980’s, Widows takes place in modern day Chicago and stars Davis as Veronica, the wife of a career criminal (Neeson) who dies alongside his crew in a heist that opens the film. Soon enough, a local politician, Jamal Manning, (Henry) and his brother (Kaluuya) come calling; it turns out the money they stole was his, and he wants it back. Trouble is, it burned up in a fire, so she’s got a month to get together $2 million or she’s not going to like the consequences. Desperate for answers, she discovers the plans to her late husband’s next job, and enlists the widows of the other members of the gang (Rodriguez, Debicki, Erivo) to just do it themselves, pay the debt and get some money out of the deal. Complicating matters is the upcoming election for alderman that pits Manning against Jack Mulligan (Farrell), the son of a Chicago power broker (Duvall) who wants to ensure the continued reign of his family in the city. Lives and motives overlap and intertwine, proving once again that life is rarely what it seems on the surface.
Now, that sounds pretty pulpy compared to McQueen’s other high-minded work, and I'm happy to report that the result is glorious, glorious trash in the best way, a roller coaster ride from start to finish that doesn't afford anyone in the theater a moment to breathe. You wouldn’t necessarily expect this from McQueen, whose career to this point had been marked by measured and reserved and profoundly serious dramas starring Michael Fassbender like Hunger and Shame. And he spends no time at all blowing all of that to hell (literally, there are more than one explosions in the opening sequence) to make his intentions clear. This isn’t the sort of movie that’s going to have an unbroken 20 minute shot of Fassbender discussing the finer aspects of civil disobedience with a priest. It’s the sort of movie that makes sure Viola Davis lives in a white apartment and wears white outfits and carries an adorable white dog in most of her scenes just to show off her uncompromising blackness. It’s the sort of movie that puts 6’3” Elizabeth Debicki in heels while she’s working as a high society escort despite the fact that she already towered over the entire cast without them. It’s the sort of movie that makes sure to put Cynthia Erivo in tank tops so she can show off her muscle-bound upper body while she hits a heavy bag. It’s the sort of movie where all the men are sleazy garbage and all the women aren’t just going to let them wreck their lives and get away with it.
Davis is an undeniable tour de force, not just the ringleader pulling together this diffuse team of women, but also a symbol for oppressed women who have been little more than side characters in heist and action films for decades. We’ve been subjected to that trope for so long, the woman whose entire purpose in a film is to fret about their man while he does something dangerous (see also Jennifer Morrison in Warrior, Anna Kendrick in End of Watch, Natalie Portman in Thor: The Dark World just to name a few). Widows decides to have that flashpoint be where the movie starts instead of ends, creating a wonderful on the formula that still manages to fit in all the crosses and double crosses and triple crosses you’d expect from a movie like this. It’s similar to this summer’s Ocean’s 8 in that respect, but far more muscular and defiant. Ocean’s 8 went for glitz and glamour and slickness (which makes sense; you don’t get slicker than Soderbergh’s Oceans movies). Widows shoves a gun in your face and dares you to do something about it.
But what’s perhaps most edifying about Widows is it still features McQueen using all of his directorly powers, even in pursuit of something less outwardly “artistic.” Sean Bobbitt’s camera work is daring and divine, putting the camera wherever he wants, from extreme close-ups to bolting the thing to the hoods and doors of cars. Flynn saw dividends working with an established director with Gone Girl, though you could argue that Fincher’s previous work made that film far less of a content departure than it is for McQueen here. But you can feel the glee in every frame. Everyone is having a blast. Kaluuya with his confident menace (the way this man stares holes through people is breathtaking) and sudden, shocking violence. Debicki as this wilting flower who grows into a giant (both of stature and power). Erivo, who burst out of nowhere last month in Bad Times at the El Royale, showing a completely different look and establishing herself as a real talent in just two movies. Widows covers a lot of ground in its two hours and ten minutes, but its pacing (buoyed by wonderful and propulsive editing from Joe Walker) is pitch perfect. It never drags; there’s not enough time for that.
McQueen proves that he can make a pulpy, trashy genre film just as well as anyone else here, and is more than happy using his prodigious talent for baser pleasures. That’s not to say Widows is all trash all the time; it has plenty to say about gender dynamics, political corruption and the struggle to pick up the pieces after a personal tragedy. It’s a means to an end, a way to prop up and flesh out the heist in a way that makes its stakes real and all the more meaningful. The result is certainly the most watchable film released in 2018 so far, the sort of movie you’ll drop everything to watch in its entirety if you come across it on TV or a streaming service. The film’s genre trappings make it likely that this won’t be an Oscar contender like 12 Years a Slave was, but don’t think that Widows is any less of a film because of it. This is a heist film operating at the absolute height of its powers, making it one of the best examples of the genre in recent memory. Strap in, because Widows is one hell of a ride.