By: Steve Pulaski
Stylish, tense, and melancholic, Steve McQueen's Widows initially had me worried it would succumb to the weaker tendencies of modern heists. Its trailer didn't sell me on much other than my confidence in McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Hunger) as a director along with the unbelievably stacked ensemble cast. I should've known better than to doubt one of the kinds of modern drama. McQueen's newest puts story first, infusing troubling commentary with characters less confident about pulling off a robbery, and more desperate and fearful about what might happen if they don't. Through top-notch cinematography and an army of great actors showing why they're mostly A-listers, Widows manages to be a great film and also another sad look at how those who play by the rules often get screwed.
The film is set in Chicago (and is so very Chicago, mind you), and opens with fragmented flashbacks of a heist led by career criminal Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) gone horribly wrong. The botched job leaves him and his crew (Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Coburn Goss) dead, thus leaving the wives of the men to carry on and keep their heads above water. Our primary focus is on Harry's wife, Veronica (Viola Davis in another emotional performance), a self-sufficient woman who we can believe has sunken into complacency in recent years given her plush penthouse and full wardrobe — goods afforded by her husband's deeds. The other women, however, have stories just as compelling: Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) is a mother of two children whose retail store is taken as collateral damage to pay off her husband's outstanding debts, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) is an abused woman who can't even get any affection from her mother (Jacki Weaver), and Amanda (Carrie Coon) is now trying to raise a newborn by herself.
Veronica is soon visited by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a local crime-boss-turned-politician, after her husband's death, and is informed that Harry's final job was to clip $2 million from him and his ongoing campaign for 18th ward alderman. Jamal wants that money back, and he threatens Veronica that she'll pay the ultimate price if he isn't given it. In the meantime, he sends his young brother, Jatemme (Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya), to act as an enforcer for uncooperative accomplices. Veronica then gets a hold of Harry's black book, so to speak, which houses all his trade secrets and elaborate jobs — including one that was next in line and would've gotten him and his men $5 million if all worked out.
To Veronica, there's no decision to be made. Her and the aforementioned women must conduct the operation as it's outlined by her late husband in order to pay off Manning and be able to forge a new, safe life for themselves in a city that's been credibly billed as "the murder capital of the US."
Chicago is a city of opportunity, but it's opportunity that's been crippled by crooked governors, crushing debt, and pockets of abject poverty that have become stark reminders of the city's social failures. In other words, it's the perfect place for an entitled scumbag like Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell boasting a flighty Chicago accent) to campaign for 18th ward alderman. A silver spoon baby coming from a litany of politicians, most notably his father (Robert Duvall), Jack ostensibly feels like he's the Kennedy or Clinton of the Windy City given how he talks as if he's owed the job of alderman without any further questions. In a scene that Chicagoans will find all too familiar, as it's right in line with the legion of lies the city's been told by the likes of Rod Blagojevich, Bruce Rauner, or whoever you choose to hate more, Jack stands before a pitiful rally for "MWOW:" Minority Women Owned Work, his latest attempt to empower minorities in an underprivileged area while taking money raised for the program to line his own pockets.
At this point, you can probably tell how dense Widows is and all I've really done is go over the plot. McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn (author and screenwriter of Gone Girl) juggle enormous themes and a barrage of colorful characters in a film that is able to manage them, different, contrasting personalities and all. No one's story feels undermined; the only thing you might wish is for a little bit more time with some characters, such as the cold-hearted Jatemme or Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a local beautician who agrees to be the widows' getaway driver when Amanda opts out of the score. Belle, among other things, embodies Chi-town's mentality of keeping one's head down, putting in work, and grinding nearly every day.
This brings me to my next detail: Widows is so unabashedly Chicago it's almost chuckle-inducing. As a lifelong Illinoisan myself, this is a film that speaks to the literal and figurative coldness of a city that through any weather, any condition, and any circumstance, just keeps on trucking. There are countless hard-working cities in America in the broad sense; there's only one Chicago and McQueen and company know how to capture it.
One of my favorite moments — which also serves as one of the film's most quietly impacting — comes shortly after the MWOW rally, when Jack and his campaign manager (Molly Kunz) pile into their driver's car and head home. They leave the event, which is held in an unkempt field in the heart of the Chicago projects, while McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt track their ride home with the camera perched on the middle of the car's hood, canted towards the passing curbside. The ride home for Jack is not even five minutes; the same length of time it takes us to go from broken infrastructure to the manicured, curated landscapes that surround the homes of the wealthy — where Jack resides, of course. I can't think of a better, more documentary-like depiction of Chicago's various pockets of poverty that show the extent of the city's poverty and wealth in what amounts to a long dog-walk. This contrast of a politician's work-life and home-life goes beyond the third largest city in America, though.
Unsurprising but still fantastic is McQueen's sense of aesthetics, which are again on-point like a syringe. A film like this could've been utterly dismantled and discombobulated by its editing, but McQueen found a phenomenal man in Joe Walker (12 Years a Slave, Arrival), who manages various timelines, characters, and relationships with Oscar-worthy poise. Furthermore, Hans Zimmer's score is one of his most impressive: a rare nuance assortment of orchestration, Zimmer's ordinarily bombastic arrangements are mellowed to match McQueen and Walker's pace. Part of my skepticism about Widows came from my growing apathy towards the heist genre along with Zimmer's strings, but my misguided fears were soon after I sat down.
Like any great film, Widows is bound to be seen and digested differently by those who pay it the time it deserves. Some will see another film with a robbery at its core, while others will stare in awe of how it so carefully summons political and social commentary without ever falling prey to didactic dialog or self-righteous sermons. Even if you emerged from it underwhelmed or remain unconvinced, take it from me, someone who has watched way more movies in my day than I'd like to admit: it's not common to see a film with this large of a cast, many different characters, conflicting personalities, timelines, and subtexts work so harmoniously. McQueen has done it again. Don't doubt the miracle-worker.