Steve McQueen’s Widows Is the Smartest Blockbuster of the Year

The Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave director has made an intelligent, crowd-pleasing heist film with a powerhouse ensemble led by Viola Davis.

Viola Davis and Cynthia Erivo in 'Widows'
Viola Davis and Cynthia Erivo in Widows (20th Century Fox)

Widows is all about theft. That might seem like a trite thing to say about a heist film bookended by two armed-robbery sequences that might be the best action set pieces of 2018. But Steve McQueen’s follow-up to 12 Years a Slave isn’t concerned only with stealing money. It’s an astounding crime epic that digs through every layer of its cops-and-robbers narrative, from the personal to the municipal. Widows is a blockbuster that feels utterly of a piece with McQueen’s earlier, artsier oeuvre (including Hunger and Shame); it’s powered by an ensemble of big names and new faces, and headed by a typically steely Viola Davis.

In adapting Lynda La Plante’s acclaimed British 1983 miniseries of the same name, McQueen and his co-writer, Gillian Flynn, have transplanted the action to Chicago to tell a very American story of disintegration. The plot sees Veronica (Davis), the grieving wife of the expert thief Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), assemble a team from the widows of his deceased crew to try and pull off their last job successfully. Widows also follows a local alderman election playing out between a monied legacy candidate (Colin Farrell) and a crime boss (Brian Tyree Henry). Which is to say the story is just as preoccupied with entrenched corruption—the film unfolds in the middle of the 2008 recession that saw Chicago’s infrastructure begin to decay.

McQueen has made a big, pulpy crowd-pleaser, but he uses it to tell a story with real meaning. Widows is methodical in its imagery and gracefully written; it’s also a suspenseful blast, best seen with the biggest, most animated audience possible. As Hollywood continues to ponder its growing divide between prestige award movies and more commercially friendly fare, it’s heartening to see McQueen make a film that doesn’t ask viewers to choose.

Widows begins with a heist arranged by Harry and his co-conspirators that goes spectacularly wrong and ends in the crew’s fiery deaths. Veronica is left with a crisp, modern apartment and a perfectly manicured Westie puppy, but McQueen emphasizes the absence of her husband in each frame, surrounding her with negative space and aggressively sterile furniture. Soon enough, Veronica is being leaned on by Jamal Manning (Henry) and his menacing brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), who are demanding the return of $2 million Harry stole from them (and which burned up in the robbery).

With few options left, Veronica calls together the other grieving wives—Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and Amanda (Carrie Coon)—convincing the first two that the only way to survive the fallout of their husbands’ bad deeds is to attempt another daring job Harry had in the works. Linda’s babysitter, Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a beautician who can seemingly run a four-minute mile, is quickly enlisted as the fourth partner. From there the plot largely hews to the arc of La Plante’s original show, and is dense enough to require a lot of immediate buy-in from the audience. Debicki and Erivo do incredible work selling their characters’ dramatic transformations in just a few scenes. The plot compression demanded by squeezing a TV show into a two-hour screenplay might have otherwise doomed Widows to ludicrousness.

The target of the women’s plans, the local politician Jack Mulligan (Farrell), is a pointed creation specific to the movie: He’s a businessman looking to occupy the South Side alderman seat held by his wizened, openly racist father, Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall), for generations. Farrell’s performance is a masterclass in 21st-century smarm: Even as the neighborhood’s demographics, and needs, have shifted wildly away from the constituency the Mulligans represent, Jack thinks of the territory as his own. But he’s just self-aware enough to adapt his public image and collect the right community endorsements for the coming election against Jamal.

In a bravura, unbroken shot not long into the film, McQueen mounts a camera on top of Jack’s car as it drives from a campaign event to his walled, fortified compound (just within the district’s limits). The audience hears Jack ranting from the back seat, but the visuals foreground the naked segregation on display, and the way the neighborhood shifts from empty storefronts to million-dollar mansions within a few blocks. No one in Widows is entirely innocent, but McQueen insists on contextualizing everything as happening within a crumbling, violent system of legalized theft.

Veronica and her makeshift crew aren’t just taking money for their own survival. There’s a palpable sense of them taking back what their own partners had quietly robbed them of for years. Linda is fighting to keep her business open after learning that her husband had borrowed against it without telling her. Alice, a trophy wife whose husband would regularly beat her, is looking to avoid being forced to become a high-end escort to make ends meet. Veronica isn’t just mourning Harry, but also a son they lost together not long before. The couple’s backstory is especially laden with twists, each of which McQueen pulls off with devastating panache (though there’s one plot element, introduced late in the film, that needed more time devoted to it).

Everyone in the cast gets multiple moments to shine, with Kaluuya playing a particularly frightening sort of terminator, and Debicki dazzling as a woman who’s impossible to judge at face value. But Davis’s superstar performance drives the film—she can silence a room just by entering it, docile Westie in tow. Because Veronica is a walking steel trap of a person, every emotion she lets slip hits all the harder, and the stakes for the final showdown feel all the more intense. After winning an Oscar in 2014 for 12 Years a Slave, McQueen could’ve done anything with his considerable talents; in Widows, he’s created a perfect model of a forward-thinking popcorn movie.