A roiling, suspenseful heist film directed by a master, Widows is one of the best movies of the year. It's rare to see a hugely talented director not named Scorsese or Tarantino tackle material like this. But Steve McQueen has outdone the action genre with his follow-up to 12 Years a Slave. The British filmmaker adapted an old ITV series and made it new again with a star-studded ensemble and noir flourishes that are downright drool-worthy. Widows is a thriller from the start and full of twists to keep you guessing throughout. The heist scenes are up there with Heat and The Dark Knight and the story hisses with danger throughout.
Another Brit, Guy Ritchie, used to own the heist genre with flash (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch), but McQueen is from another school. Widows, which is set in Chicago, feels very much like an American movie. Much takes place in the darkness and it has roots in the complicated crime stories of the '70s and '80s as well as modern tactical heist films. It's an admirable mix of artistic method and commercial appeal.
Wrapped within two terrific action sequences that'll blow your hair back, Widows begins with a threat. After her husband, Harry (Liam Neeson), is killed on a job along with his crew, Veronica (Viola Davis) gets a visit from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a gangster whose $2 million burned up along with Harry in the robbery. Manning is trying to win a local election against legacy incumbent Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and he needs that money. The complicated politics and corruption involved color the film and add depth. McQueen is building theme and he's savvy enough to comment on real-life events — the film is set during the 2008 recession — while spinning a gangster yarn.
Meanwhile, he tells a visual tale as well. After Harry dies, Veronica is left in their pristine modern apartment, surrounded by negative space. Her husband is gone and she's utterly alone. You can feel it, which makes her decision to pull off her own heist to pay the debt all the more risky and courageous.
Veronica recruits the other wives who just lost their husbands after she finds Harry's detailed plans for another $5 million job. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) are in, but Amanda (Carrie Coon) has a newborn and Veronica decides against telling her the plan. That plan, meanwhile, is to rob Mulligan's safe and, thus, the plot thickens. The Mannings apply more pressure, people die, people get blackmailed, Linda brings her babysitter (Cynthia Erivo) in on the heist, and much more. There's so much happening in Widows, yet there's no confusion. Everything unfolds logically and McQueen's script (written with Gillian Flynn) features enough twists to surprise.
Many films are labeled "empowering for females" these days. There's a rush to do it, but not many deserve the praise. Widows does. It's a heist film, but one punctuated by deeply personal motivations. The women in the movie, as we learn, weren't exactly taken care of by their thieving dead husbands and they're thrust into a power struggle. The heist is their way of taking back both the power their partners stole from them and their own lives. Linda's husband left her in debt and she has a clothing store to save. Alice, who was abused, is on the verge of prostitution when Veronica approaches her. Widows is full of these layers. It's a clinic in how to develop characters quickly in a genre film like this.
It also helps that Widows boasts the all-star cast of the year (Sorry, Avengers: Infinity War). Davis is a standout, proving once again she's one of the most powerful actors working today. Veronica's son has died, her husband has died, and Davis carries that weight. It's hard to breathe during some of her scenes because you don't want to miss a word. And she's flanked by talent. Debicki is soundly unpredictable as Alice. Rodriguez is steely and cast perfectly. And the male standouts are Farrell, who's a natural as the entitled politician Mulligan, and Daniel Kaluuya, who's the movie's personification of evil as Jamal's lethal brother and enforcer.
Still, McQueen is the one behind the magic. Widows fits perfectly in his portfolio although it's very different from his other films. He's always been a thoughtful director with something to say and he still is. There's something wonderful about seeing Viola Davis and Liam Neeson kissing passionately in the opening scene. It's something you don't see a lot of in movies — interracial couples showing love. And it's something pointedly inserted by McQueen that speaks volumes. Not a shot is wasted. Widows is masterful.