Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2018 Golden Horse Film Festival.
A heist film is usually focused on the heist: who’s the mark, what’s the take, who brings what skills to the table, what goes wrong, and (with the rare exception) how do they get away with it? Steve McQueen’s Widows (2018) turns all of that on its head, giving us a heist film about a band of unskilled reluctant criminals stealing for someone else from a place they have to determine for themselves. The plan of this particular heist is pretty straightforward; it’s everything else that’s hard. And that “everything else” encompasses the very idea of the city of Chicago.
The film opens on a quartet of male heisters mid-getaway, led by Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), getting chased and shot at by the cops. In a marvel of economical storytelling (the script is written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl (2014) fame), this is intercut with flashbacks of three of them starting the day and greeting their wives. The thieves and their stolen two million go out in a ball of fire, and the women are left to pick up the pieces. Turns out Rawlings was stealing from drug lord Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who needed the money to run for city alderman and go legit. He gives Rawlings’s widow, Veronica (Viola Davis), thirty days to pay him back. A message from Harry arrives from beyond the grave that leads her to his heist diary, containing plans for his next job, and she shanghais two of the other widows into the scheme.
Davis is predictably powerful as a grieving widow who takes up her husband’s mantle, not to carry on his legacy but to bury it for good. The Rawlings’ bond was physical as well as emotional, and throughout the film, in moments of quiet, Veronica sinks into reveries of Harry’s touch and smell and presence. At one point, she has to go to the bathroom to check that it really isn’t Harry taking his morning shower. (This sets her up for the twist at the end, in which Harry, who we learn earlier is alive, shows up after the heist to try to take the loot from her.) The sight of her compartmentalizing these memories away before leaving the house is a mini masterclass in projecting interiority. Like many of Davis’s characters, Veronica’s tough because she’s raw inside, and the film is confident enough to give us equal amounts of both.
All of the actors in this thing are good; apart from Davis, three other leads stand out. Elizabeth Debicki, a long-overlooked actor of real ability, plays widow Alice, who used to be subservient to the important people in her life but is pushed by this heist situation to learn to leverage her wits, beauty, and even heritage in pursuit of a better life—one that belongs to her alone. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in this role, the casting is so perfect; even better, it’s a break from Debicki’s usual typecasting as a suave and glamorous femme fatale. We get to see her mature into herself as the film progresses, and the transformation is empowering, for her and for us.
Four people are needed to pull off the heist, but only three widows take part. Rounding out the crew is Cynthia Erivo’s Belle, babysitter for Linda, another widow and heister (Michelle Rodriguez). The only strictly voluntary member of the crew, she joins as the getaway driver when their first choice gets done in by Manning’s enforcer (Daniel Kaluuya, cold as death). It also doesn’t hurt that she can run like hell. Erivo has only recently been making the jump from stage to screen acting, and her stage presence props up her character, the least rounded of the four. As a late addition and not one of the widows, her backstory is told from a tangential angle, and it’s only about ten minutes into the subplot of her life that we see her story link up with Linda’s. Her motivation, too, is a bit lacking: All four of them need money, but only three of them are being threatened by Manning. Nevertheless, her contributions to the heist, buttressed by Erivo’s acting and Flynn’s streetsmart lines, carry her through.
The last notable performance I want to mention is by a man. Colin Farrell plays Manning’s electoral opponent, Jack Mulligan, scion of a political dynasty who, it transpires, is sick of politics but sees no way out. Farrell has always succeeded at playing people who are caged in and feel uncomfortable in their own skin. Here, he’s kept in his lane by both his cranky, bigoted, racist, and power-mad father (Robert Duvall) and his assistant (Molly Kunz), who lurks in the background until he starts whining and then unleashes her inner Amy Dunne. This latter event takes place in what will probably become the most famous sequence in the film: Leaving by car a vacant lot in a run-down neighborhood, the two argue while the hood-mounted camera, in one unbroken and all-too-brief shot, records in real time the socioeconomic improvement of each passing house, before they arrive at the townhouse mansion that serves as Mulligan’s campaign HQ just a couple blocks away.
Mulligan’s political apathy doesn’t mean, however, that he refrains from reaping the financial rewards of graft and corruption, and the morality of the widows’ heist is justified by making their target Mulligan’s millions in illegal kickbacks. His dirty fingers even extend down to the barbershop where Belle works part-time. The matrix of Manning, Mulligan, the widows, and Belle forms a microcosm of the city in its interconnectedness across genders, races, ethnicities, income levels, religious denominations (Manning’s HQ is a small church while Mulligan is endorsed by a mega-church pastor played by Jon Michael Hill)—and even across both sides of the law. None of the individual elements are new, but putting it all together and in such close proximity, sometimes connected by a single shot, is a breathtakingly visionary act.
The weakest parts of the film ironically, have to do with the heist. There’s Belle’s vague characterization. There are the two not exactly logical twists involving Liam Neeson. And the heist itself is underlit by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, even at the cinema. But even at its weak points, the film compensates with tension and melodrama. I hesitate not a whit in calling Widows the most satisfying heist film of the year.