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.
Read: The trenchant powers of “If Beale Street Could Talk’” and “Widows”
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.