Fewer than six months after Oscar winners Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and Anne Hathaway teamed up to pull off an impossible heist in Ocean’s 8, British filmmaker Steve McQueen should have few problems stealing some of that breezy hit’s audience with his far more accomplished trek through some of the same territory.
Known for adult-minded indie fare like Hunger and Shame, the 49-year-old director unexpectedly follows up 2013’s 12 Years A Slave—his acclaimed-yet-difficult-to-watch Best Picture winner—with his most commercial film to date. Working with Gone Girl novelist and screenwriter Gillian Flynn, McQueen has produced a crackling crowd pleaser by reconfiguring a British TV miniseries that enthralled him as a teen. This big-screen version of Widows retains the central premise of the small-screen potboiler from 1983 about three desperate women who carry out a robbery that was planned by their dead husbands, who all recently perished in a heist gone wrong. The biggest difference in the versions is that Flynn and McQueen have transplanted the action from mid-’80s London to contemporary Chicago, Flynn’s home.
This change accomplishes a few things, such as grounding the film’s violence in a city that’s sadly become accustomed to deadly tragedy as part of daily life. Notably, the backdrop also allows them to touch on the state of modern politics as an election between two corrupt candidates running for alderman of the Windy City’s 18th District figures prominently in the twisty narrative.
But this update really belongs to its women, chief among them Veronica. Viola Davis has played strong characters before (and earned a Supporting Actress nomination for portraying an oppressed worker of the Jim Crow South in The Help), but her role as the central figure who unites the other widows gifts her with a substantially more meaty role to chew on than the assortment of detectives, lawyers, social workers, elected officials, CIA directors—and yes, even the bereaved wives—that she’s spent the past couple of decades inhabiting. Not only that, but it’s an atypically sexy role for an actress who finally won an Oscar for portraying a long-suffering housewife in Fences.
And while that character wasn’t particularly desired by her philandering husband (Denzel Washington) in the adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the opening frames of Widows find Davis passionately locking lips with Liam Neeson, who briefly appears as Veronica’s husband, Harry. Alas, this steamy depiction of domestic bliss is quickly interrupted by McQueen’s longtime collaborator, ace editor Joe Walker, who cuts between the couple intertwined in bed and Harry’s frantic flight from a failed robbery, moments before he and his crew (Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Coburn Goss) are fired upon by police.
More economic editing during this deadly pursuit also offers fleet introductions to soon-to-be widows Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Amanda (Carrie Coon) in the final moments they each shared with their husbands. While they all are victims of fate, Veronica quickly learns she has the most to lose when she’s visited by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry of FX’s Atlanta), the local gang boss Harry was targeting.
Jamal might be attempting to go legit as he runs against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) for the alderman seat that has belonged to generations of Mulligans, but to him, politics simply offers a less life-threatening—though nevertheless shady—alternative to making money compared to his current business ventures. That business felt the impact of the $2 million that was stolen by Veronica’s husband, before the greenbacks burned in the blaze that consumed Harry and his crew. Jamal gives her a month to pay it back, and if she doesn’t, his sociopathic brother and enforcer Jatemme (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya in a terrifying performance) will make sure she’s no longer around to miss another payment.
So when Veronica gains possession of a notebook containing the blueprint of the next heist that Harry was planning, she doesn’t hesitate to enlist the aid of Alice, Linda and Amanda to carry on the work of their late husbands. Once new mom Amanda opts out (her role in the plan is filled by a very reliable hairdresser played by Bad Times at the El Royale’s Cynthia Erivo), it only underlines the fact that McQueen has set his pulpy tale in a recognizable, if unpredictable reality filled with real consequences, one that’s as far removed from the stylized bubble gum pop of Ocean’s 8 as you can get. These aren’t women who are out to have a good time. Desperate to survive, their leap into crime has everything to do with their own sense of worth, in a world that’s only just beginning to take them seriously. ◆
Starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Garrett Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Jacki Weaver, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Coburn Ross, Robert Duvall and Liam Neeson. Written by Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen, based on the U.K. television miniseries Widows, written by Lynda La Plante. Directed by McQueen. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway, Seaport, South Bay and in the suburbs.