With the pedigree of talent behind and in front of the camera, you’d be forgiven for expecting “Widows” to be something very special. And you’d be right, too. Director Steve McQueen, sharing screenwriting duties with Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) in adapting a 1983 British TV series by Lynda La Plante, creates a polished, compellingly multi-layered ensemble drama; the female-led heist movie “Ocean’s 8” wants to be when it grows up.
When Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew are killed during a botched robbery, his widow Veronica (Viola Davis) is threatened by crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) from whom Harry had stolen $2 million before the job went wrong. Manning is making a move to legitimise his business, using the drug money to finance his electoral campaign for alderman against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), son of the retiring incumbent Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall). Given a deadline by which to repay her husband’s debt to Manning, Veronica has no alternative but to stage a heist of her own and, using her late husband’s journal, she recruits her fellow widows to pull off the job.
There’s an authentic air of menace and solemnity to “Widows” which gives it tremendous power. This isn’t some frothy ‘just-for-the-kicks’ display of bravado and cleverness to pull off a cunning heist – there are real life and death stakes her and survival is the greater prize than any sums of money. Left bereft and destitute by their husbands, the story is propelled by the strength, determination and persistence of the women in the face of increasingly brutal threats.
Davis command the screen and her co-stars raise their game magnificently to match her. Elizabeth Debicki has never been better and Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo bring real pathos and grit to the on-screen gang. In parallel, McQueen and Flynn arrange a complex web of corrupt, powerful men vying for supremacy in a cold war over who will control the lucrative public purse strings. While each of the would-be Aldermen presents themselves as the reasonable party, they are reflections of each other and, in turn, each has their own dark reflections: Manning in his younger brother Jatemme (a chillingly brutal Daniel Kaluuya) and Mulligan in his archly critical and unloving father.
Mirrors and reflections are a visual and thematic touchstone that McQueen returns to again and again during the film, to superb effect. With each of the characters presented with their opposites, sometimes inverted, sometimes distorted, it takes its cue from the unashamedly (and rightly so) prominence of the inter-racial relationship at the heart of the story and uses that black and white dichotomy as a framework to arrange its characters and motivations like a mirrored chess-board.
The film encompasses social and municipal corruption and politics, sexism, racism, police brutality and yet still manages to deliver in terms of action, incident and tension. It’s a near perfect and polished film, expertly blending substance with style to deliver an intoxicatingly rich drama. Depending on your personal tastes, it may attempt one twist too many, gilding the lily, but it’s a small price to pay for a movie this exquisite.