For many, it seems, the fact that Academy Award-winning director Steve McQueen (Shame, 12 Years a Slave) was at the helm of this heist flick would somehow guarantee a cinematic offering that would transcend genre and deliver something completely unique. Whilst it is true that McQueen has incorporated elements that ensure Widows does challenge convention (a predominantly female cast, for example), the film still resonates with the typicality of an action film, elevated in its overall effectiveness by the collective capabilities of those involved, including a stellar line-up of acting talent. Beyond merely pulp entertainment, the film delves into various socio-political issues that plague Chicago (and other American cities as well, no doubt), particularly the political corruption that serves the rich at the expense of the poor, creating a widening chasm of societal inequity.
Like so many films of this ilk, Widows opens with an immediate shot of adrenaline as the latest job by criminal Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew (one of whom is played by Jon Bernthal) goes very, very wrong. As the fateful job plays out, editor Joe Walker alternates the action between the gang and introductions to their respective spouses. Given the title of the film, the heist obviously doesn’t go according to plan and the four women – Veronica (Viola Davis), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Amanda (Carrie Coon) – find themselves at the mercy of criminal and aspiring politician Jamal Manning. You see, the $2 million dollars Harry and his crew stole was to be used by Manning (Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry) to fund his campaign for election as a council alderman. Needless to say, Manning wants the money and the onus is on Veronica – as Harry’s wife – to repay the debt. Fortunately for her, she has her late husband’s notebook that outlines his next job, the successful execution of which would cover the debt with plenty to spare. Veronica gathers the other widows together and, despite the fact they have no experience in the field and have never previously met, the women agree to work together to complete the job.
Colin Farrell also features as Jack Mulligan, Manning’s silky smooth electoral opponent looking to follow in the footsteps of his racist father Tom (Robert Duvall). In one particularly impressive scene (which looks as though it is a single uninterrupted shot) we watch Mulligan travel from a campaign event to his home. As the camera stays outside the car to show us the rapidly changing neighbourhood along the commute, we listen as Jack cops a dressing-down from his assistant Siobhan (Molly Kunz), who tells him to “man up” and do whatever it takes to win the election. It is an interesting and highly effective choice to place the camera outside the car for the entire scene yet it still offers plenty of insight into the nature of the relationship between the two characters. An actor as talented as Duvall is wasted on such a one-dimensional character while, as Alice’s mother, Australia’s Jackie Weaver is also lumbered with a character devoid of any nuance. However, Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out, Black Panther) is particularly menacing as Manning’s brother and Cynthia Erivo delivers another strong performance on the back of her breakout in Bad Times at the El Royale. However, over and above the various misdeeds that unfold, the use of Carrie Coon in such a small role is perhaps the biggest crime of all.
Adapted by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) from a book by Lynda La Plante and previously produced as a TV mini-series, it is not hard to imagine how the extra run time of such a format would allow the story and the lives of the characters to be explored more fully. However, with this much talent involved, Widows was always going to be a cut above the typical action thriller and while there are some elements that are surprisingly clumsy in their execution, such as the fact that none of the women seem to consider for a minute that Manning might be watching them, McQueen has delivered something that successfully incorporates the various elements we have come to expect in a film of this type whilst capturing a sense of time and place that serves the story very well.