A crew of armed robbers led by Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) conduct big money heists in and around Chicago. They are very good at what they do, but one night their luck runs out. A shootout in a garage with police causes an explosion of compressed gas canisters, killing Rawlings and his three accomplices. Rawlings wife Veronica (Viola Davis) is left to grieve her loss, but she also has a much bigger problem. The target of Rawlings last job was gangster turned aspiring politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Rawlings and his crew stole $2-million and Manning wants it back to use in his campaign for a seat on the Chicago Board of Aldermen. Manning give Veronica one month to come up with the money or he’ll kill her. Manning’s opponent for the seat is Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the son of long-time alderman Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall). Jack is reluctantly following in his father’s footsteps but is just as corrupt and bigoted as him. Manning and Mulligan are in a tight race and that $2-million could be important in the final push to election day. Rawlings kept a notebook of all his jobs, including his next one that has a potential take of $5-million. Veronica recruits the widows of Harry’s crew: Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki). The fourth widow Amanda Nunn (Carrie Coon) has a newborn baby and doesn’t want to be involved in the plan. Each woman has their strengths and weaknesses and Veronica is the leader despite rubbing her partners the wrong way. A fourth woman, Belle (Cynthia Erivo), who babysits for Linda and works at a hair salon that’s being shaken down by Jack Mulligan, joins the crew as a driver. The group of inexperienced robbers have just a few days left before the one-month deadline passes and must learn to work together as a team to pull off a complicated plan to save their lives.
“Widows” is a smart heist movie. It shows us almost all the parts of the plan but holds just enough back to allow for a few surprises. The film also drops personal nuggets about the main relationship in the story, between Harry and Veronica, that are mysteries at first. As the film moves along, we get explanations to these mysteries and reasons for moments of drama and sadness. Director Steve McQueen has taken what could have been a very average crime flick and turned it into a relationship drama between the four women and the ghosts of their husbands. The amazing thing is it works no matter what part of the story is the highlight at any given moment.
Viola Davis gives a masterpiece of a performance as Veronica. The grieving widow shows us flashbacks to better times with her and Harry. We also get a look at their darkest time during the loss of their son. It’s a tough and intense performance that was likely emotionally tiring for Davis. She is called upon to cry approximately a dozen times throughout the film. Veronica rarely smiles when she’s on screen. The one time she does, it looks like it takes all the strength she has. Davis is a warrior and a leader as Veronica. She isn’t always the most likable character, but her motivations are understandable. She is under the gun, literally, and has a plan in place to get Manning his money. She can’t waste time with weakness, mistakes and stupidity. Despite her own inexperience as a thief, Veronica must put on a brave face. In quiet times alone in her home, Veronica can barely get out of bed, but somehow finds the strength to lead her crew. While this may not be the kind of film that gets Oscar recognition, Davis deserves serious consideration for best actress.
The rest of the supporting cast is excellent. A standout is Daniel Kaluuya as Jatemme Manning, the brother and bloodthirsty enforcer for Jamal Manning. He has a crazy look in his eye all the time. He gets in people’s faces to intimidate them and is quick to pull the trigger. Kaluuya doesn’t have many lines in the film, but his character doesn’t need many to get his point across. A simple wave, smile and wink have the opposite of those gestures usual meanings when Kaluuya’s character uses them. He’s a bully but can also back up his threats by carrying them out. You may have loved his character in “Get Out,” but you won’t be a big fan of Jatemme Manning in “Widows.”
The story of “Widows” doesn’t stick to one topic. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker that might have been a problem; however, Steve McQueen handles the various topics in the film with an even hand and laser focus. While the heist planning and execution is the focus, the story veers into politics and the corruption Chicago is famous for. The family dynasty at risk, the kickbacks, the payoffs, the quid pro quo, all is on display in the film. Embedded in the corruption is racism and misogyny. Davis delivers a line about no one believing the women have the balls to pull off the job and she’s right. Mulligan uses a group of women business owners as a prop during a campaign appearance but doesn’t let them speak. Mulligan has a female assistant that is frequently referred to in derogatory terms or ogled like a piece of meat. A couple of the wives are used and abused by their husbands. One of the wives becomes an escort to make ends meet. While her client appears to be a decent guy that can afford to pay for her company, he winds up treating her more as an employee than a partner. It’s a movie with many messages and most of them are powerful men suck.
“Widows” is rated R for some sexual content/nudity, language throughout and violence. There is a brief sex scene that shows a man’s bare backside and a woman’s breasts. There are some bloody shootings and a scene where stabbing is used as torture. There is also a scene showing the aftermath of domestic abuse. A mother slaps her adult daughter. Foul language is common.
“Widows” doesn’t waste time trying to convince us anyone in the film is a good guy or a bad guy. The real villains wear suits and the women commit a crime to save their lives. There is no black and white in “Widows” only varying shades of grey. It’s a tense film with the looming dread of death hanging over all the characters. Who lives and dies is always in doubt. While you may question whether a group of inexperienced people could pull off such a complicated robbery, you will be thrilled by all the planning, details and the execution. It’s a fantastic film and you should see it.
“Widows” gets five stars.
The holiday weekend sees most releases opening on Wednesday. I’ll see at least one of the following:
Ralph Breaks the Internet—
The Front Runner—
Listen to The Fractured Frame for the latest news in TV, movies and streaming available wherever you get podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.