“Widows” isn’t your run-of-the-mill heist film. Director Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) subverts the genre with a smart, tightly plotted, female-driven story that trades typical heist film playfulness for something more urgent, but no less fun.
Liam Neeson plays Harry Rawlings, a notorious Chicago thief, who along with his crew is killed when a job goes sideways. In the aftermath, Harry’s widow Veronica (Viola Davis) finds herself on the hook for the $2 million her husband stole from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a South Side kingpin who needs the cash to fund his bid for city alderman. Manning faces tough opposition from Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the privileged scion of a Chicago political dynasty, whose reluctant participation in the family business puts him at odds with his elderly racist father Tom, played by an imposing Robert Duvall.
In desperation, Veronica enlists the help of her fellow widows, Alice and Linda, played by Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriquez respectively. Extremely out of their depth, the trio nonetheless sets about planning a robbery to make Manning whole, as well as provide a nest egg for themselves after discovering their husbands left them with nothing.
Davis makes Veronica’s grief felt in a strong performance that underscores the depths of female resilience. At its core, this is a film about survival that asks what people are capable of doing when their lives are on the line. Veronica answers that call with an unwavering commitment to see this job through to its end.
Rodriquez, no stranger to the action/heist genre, is more restrained here as a cautious young mother who wants her children to know that, even if she ends up in jail or worse, she never rolled over and didn’t go down without a fight.
Debicki’s Alice is a powerful study of personal growth. Free from her abusive husband, she chooses to no longer play a passive role in her own life. Throughout the course of the film, she evolves from an insecure victim into a self-assured individual capable of standing up for herself.
The fantastic ensemble cast is an embarrassment of riches, with a number of top-shelf actors appearing in supporting roles throughout. Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”) takes a villainous turn as Jatemme, Jamal’s brother. A lieutenant in the criminal organization, his character is pure menace.
Cynthia Erivo’s (“Bad Times at the El Royale”) Belle is a hardup-for-cash single mom who gamely falls in with Veronica as the team’s driver. Carrie Coon, meanwhile, shows up in a minor but pivotal role as Amanda, another of the widows who chooses to steer clear of the heist.
McQueen, who gets a major writing assist from “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn, packs the script with unexpected twists and exciting action sequences that keep you engaged as the story touches on heavier themes like sexism, racism and interracial marriage, which simmer just below the surface and manifest as motivating factors in characters’ actions.
If there’s anything to fault the “Widows” for, it’s for how much it attempts to pack into its 129-minute runtime. While the heist and the election plots intersect, the election story at times strays too far from the main characters. But that’s a minor quibble about an otherwise tense and fun film with an ambiguous ending that leaves the door open for a sequel.