Steve McQueen’s Widows is the type of movie that Hollywood too rarely bankrolls anymore: a mid-budget crackerjack crowdpleaser for adults. McQueen, the British director and video artist who made Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years A Slave, has never applied his muscular, fluid camerawork and ease with performers to a script this unapologetically commercial. Who might have guessed that he’d follow his Best Picture victory with a crime thriller about a group of desperate, bereaved women taking up their dead husbands’ lawless line of work to get themselves out of a jam? Yet McQueen isn’t slumming. If Widows is pulp, it’s pulp made with intelligence and craft and an urgent social conscience. One might even call it a throwback to a richer era of American studio movies, except that the story also feels attuned to a very contemporary anger, aimed at powerful men and the corrupt systems that sanction their abuses.
If you didn’t know McQueen directed Widows, the electrifying opening montage would make it clear that someone with talent and vision did. We open on Viola Davis and Liam Neeson, passionately kissing. No sooner has the film established their tender domestic bliss than it shatters it with a smash cut to a getaway van veering erratically into the night, dodging gunfire. Neeson’s character, Harry Rowling, is a career criminal. McQueen efficiently introduces each member of his outfit and their wives, breaking up illustrative fragments of home life with jarring glimpses of a job gone wrong. The criminals end up dead. Our heroines are the widows they’ve left behind: Harry’s wealthy trophy wife, Veronica (Davis), business owner and newly single mother Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), and the truly out-of-options Alice (Elizabeth Debicki). When the dangerous gangsters their husbands ripped off come looking to collect the missing $2 million that burned up with their bodies, Veronica hatches a scheme: They’ll pull off a daring first and last job from the deceased crew’s back burner.
The plot, twisty and dense with supporting players, has been adapted from a mid-’80s British miniseries. Working with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, who’s now something of a leading voice in the field of grownup multiplex thrillers, McQueen both condenses and expands the source material, chipping it into something closer to a Michael Mann crime opus and setting it against the backdrop of a Chicago alderman race between two corrupt candidates. One of them, Jamal Manning (Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry), is the kingpin putting the squeeze on the widows, even as he attempts to transition out of a life of violent crime and into a cushier one of kickbacks. The other is Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), youngest star of a Daley-style political dynasty, who sees control of the 18th ward as a birthright he’s not sure he even wants. This subplot provides some of the texture of a grand urban mosaic like The Wire, though at a crisp, skillfully streamlined two-hours-and-change, Widows doesn’t give it much room to breathe.
Then again, more scenes with these dueling robber barons might only distract from the tense, engrossing heist movie McQueen and Flynn have otherwise engineered. This is no breezy Ocean’s sequel. Because Veronica, Linda, and Alice have no experience in the robbing business (and no access to hackers or hi-tech gadgets), they have to get by on their wits and gall, cobbling together the job from scratch, with only the bare outline of a big score etched into Harry’s notebook. At its most gleefully enjoyable, Widows unfolds like a procedural of analog, DIY crime, as the three amateur crooks embark on a self-taught crash course in buying guns, procuring transportation, and scouting the targeted location. Their secret weapon is an element of surprise: To put their plan into motion, the women exploit how the world underestimates them (“No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off,” Veronica tells her makeshift team by way of a pep talk), while capitalizing on male ego, desire, and condescension.
Beneath the well-oiled genre mechanics, this is a film about hierarchies of power and position, about shit trickling down. Henry’s mob-boss heavy, for all his ruthlessness, has felt the sting of oppression, too; “I want his life,” Manning says of his opponent—it’s not just the luxury, but also the social status, that he covets. Mulligan, on the other hand, is the picture of clueless privilege: Caught in the shadow of his domineering Chicago-political-machine father (Robert Duvall), this scion frontrunner has everything and resents it all. Widows even identifies divisions in advantage among its trio of beleaguered protagonists. “Have either of you ever been inside a prison?” Linda asks her accomplices, whose wealth and whiteness, respectively, have colored their perspectives. What all three have in common is that they’ve been hurt by the men in their lives. The real objective of their heist is getting out from under that kind of control, and finding an autonomous alternative to strings-attached “help,” be it the minority-women business initiative spearheaded by Mulligan as a photo op or the expectations of the playboy john (Lukas Haas) with whom Alice’s mother (Jacki Weaver) encourages her to develop an arrangement.
Quaking vulnerability and take-no-shit authority are both key weapons in Viola Davis’ arsenal. In Widows, one blossoms out of the other, as Veronica’s grief—for her husband, but also over an earlier trauma that plugs the film into an ongoing tragedy of American injustice—calcifies into a steely determination. It’s a commanding star performance, no less powerful for the fact that Davis spends a good portion of her screentime carrying around a fluffy pet pooch, a living symbol of the creature comforts she clings to as her old life crumbles. On the whole, McQueen has assembled a hell of an ensemble, his cast turning even the smallest assignments into juicy plum parts. Cynthia Erivo, for example, makes an even stronger impression here than she did in Bad Times At The El Royale, assuming the Dennis Haysbert-in-Heat role of the crew’s final hire, while Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya twists his cucumber cool into a sociopathic menace as Manning’s gang-muscle brother. But the film’s best performance might come from Debicki, who matches Davis’ transformation with one of her own, as Alice—battered by her late husband, pushed into the arms of a new possessive man—emerges slowly but forcefully from her shell. (Credit Flynn, perhaps, for this empowering dimension, in line with the author’s regular focus on the roles women are asked to play.)
There have always been hints of a populist flair in McQueen’s work, in the way he organizes his character dramas around showboating set pieces, like Michael Fassbender pounding Manhattan pavement in an extended single take. In Widows, he makes every scene pop with personality and nervous energy, sprucing up something as simple as a dialogue exchange with the predatory spin of his camera and the jagged disruption of his editing rhythms. There’s purpose, of course, to many of these choices; in one of the film’s most remarkable offhand moments, McQueen films an entire conversation from outside a moving vehicle, making a damning political point simply by shifting the focus from one quadrant of the windshield to the other. Mostly, though, the filmmaker doesn’t condescend to his genre. He’s made a proudly mainstream movie—an exciting and fun one, even—that wants to make you think as it quickens your pulse. Maybe putting more genuine artists behind the cameras of Hollywood entertainment would make that the rule instead of the exception.