2018, R, 129 min. Directed by Steve McQueen. Starring Viola Davis, Colin Farrell, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson, Lukas Haas, Carrie Coon, Jon Bernthal.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 16, 2018

For his first film since winning multiple awards for 12 Years a Slave in 2013, Steve McQueen has decided to take a more commercial route to the box office with this heist thriller starring the phenomenal Viola Davis. An irresistible premise – the widows of three men who died during a high-stakes robbery commit a theft of their own to pay back the angry men from whom their husbands stole – pulls the trigger on this dynamo. The Chicago-set genre picture is adapted from the crime drama on British television by Lynda La Plante (Prime Suspect) and adapted for the screen by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects). At every turn, corruption oozes from the pores of this thriller, and although the film’s tone keeps us on edge, Widows also hits a few perfunctory pits in the road.

Widows’ plot follows the steps of a conventional heist film: hatching the scheme, acquiring the guns and other tools, planning the details, executing the crime, and making a getaway. However well-planned these are, McQueen’s primary interest relies on the creation of surprising moments. The film opens on the image of Veronica (Davis) and her husband Harry Rawlings (Neeson) in bed. The contrasting black and white skin of the lovers, seen in repose and lust, provides a startling initial sight, especially when presented without context or history. As played by Davis, Veronica is the personification of this indeterminate mood. We’re never exactly sure of the character’s motives and thinking. She grieves for her deceased husband, while also harboring anger toward him. Scattershot images of his failed heist are intercut with the opening lovemaking, showing the getaway van and the cash going up in flames at the end of the sequence. McQueen keeps us ever on our toes.

Veronica would merely be a grieving widow living in an expensive high-rise were it not for a visit from Harry’s victims Jamal Manning (Henry), who is running for alderman, and his sociopathic brother Jatemme (Kaluuya), who want back the $2 million that was stolen from them. Also running for alderman in the district is the incumbent Jack Mulligan (Farrell), who is the reluctant political scion of his overbearing father (Duvall). The Chicago political machine has fingers in every pot, and McQueen also emphasizes the contrasts between the city’s rich and poor, much as he does with the skin colors in the opening shots.

The performances are all taut and terrific, as is the direction. Widows bogs down a bit once the heist gets going. (But maybe it seems like just another sharp contrast, a slog in comparison to the rapid images of the men’s spectacular heist shown in the opening minutes.) There may be no honor amongst thieves, but at least one thing is true: Viola Davis knows a thing or two about getting away with murder.

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More Steve McQueen Films
12 Years a Slave
Brutal yet elegant, Steve McQueen's latest is a beautifully rendered punch to the gut about the most shameful chapter in American history.

Steve Davis, Nov. 1, 2013

Exquisite control and spasmed anguish mark the performances of Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan in this dark, NC-17-rated story about a sex addict.

Kimberley Jones, Dec. 16, 2011

More by Marjorie Baumgarten
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July 7, 2023

All That Breathes
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March 31, 2023


Widows, Steve McQueen, Viola Davis, Colin Farrell, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson, Lukas Haas, Carrie Coon, Jon Bernthal

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