Widows is well cast and perfectly acted, tells a compelling story about how corruption aids outright criminality without being overly didactic about it, and is directed with a firmness one might expect from an Oscar-winning director whose command of visual storytelling verges on the total. If it weren't for the fact that there's one twist too many, it would be a nearly perfect movie.
In the opening moments of Widows we see the eponymous group of women become eponymous: Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and Amanda (Carrie Coon) are saying goodbye to their men for the day; intercut between these good mornings and adieus we see Harry (Liam Neeson), Florek (Jon Bernthal), Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and Jimmy (Coburn Goss) taking part in a heist that seems to be going down all wrong. Seems to be—then definitely is, a fireball sparked off by a barrage of bullets from the cops engulfing the robbers, the explosion ripping their van in half.
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Harry and his crew were lifting $2 million from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a local hood who hoped to use his ill-gotten nest egg as a campaign war chest. He wants to be the first black alderman in his Chicago ward, taking the seat on the city council from the Mulligan family that has held it for decades. Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) thought he was set to inherit it from his father, Tom (Robert Duvall), but elections are won, not granted—even occasionally in Chicago—and Manning has all the demographics in his favor.
Manning goes to Veronica and demands the money be returned, in full, lest she pay a physical price. Veronica goes to Linda and Alice and demands that they help her pull off Harry's next job, a meticulously planned-out gig he says is worth $5 million, lest she give them up to the Mannings. The women have to learn how to be criminals while Jamal and Jack have to learn how to be pols, and all their educations intertwine in amusing, terrifying ways.
Widows‘s greatest strength is its cast, replete as it is with Oscar-caliber talent like Viola Davis, Robert Duvall, Daniel Kaluuya, and Liam Neeson. Kaluuya is especially menacing as Jamal Mannings's brother, Jatemme; at one point, director Steve McQueen films Kaluuya entering the personal space of a man who has wronged the family, the camera spinning slowly in a circle as he dips and weaves near the man, shark-like in his constant motion. It's almost a relief when he pulls out a gun and ends the charade, the tension is so unbearable.
Leave aside the Oscar winners and Oscar nominees, though, and you still have an A-plus supporting cast, with Jon Bernthal and Colin Farrell and Michelle Rodriguez and the ever-under-appreciated Garret Dillahunt, who plays Veronica's loyal, dimwitted driver. But I want to give a special shout out to Elizabeth Debicki, who is finally given a chance to shine in a film worthy of her talents. Sharp-eyed viewers may remember her from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 or The Great Gatsby. Here she's asked to do more than play a golden statuesque alien or a flapper vying for the attention of wealthy New Yorkers. She gets to be funny, do accents, play a believable character who demonstrates real growth as she makes her own way in a world that expects nothing more from her than housewifery—or for her to get her mitts in a sugar daddy via the seedier side of the web.
Widows is a study of a city in the grips of political and moral turpitude, one in which every institution has been hollowed out by greed and graft. Manning isn't running to be his ward's first African-American alderman in order to better his people. He wants to get his finger in every pie, trade favors for kickbacks. From the jobs programs to the police precincts to the efforts to expand the trains to the neighborhood, everyone has a hand out. Justice? A joke.
McQueen's movie is at its best when it serves as a character study of a people and a city hobbled by crime and corruption. How does Veronica react to being cornered by gangsters? How does Linda deal with losing her stores to the mob because her husband couldn't stay away from the bookies? How does Alice handle life without a man to protect and cherish (and beat) her? How do pols—and gangsters who would be pols—react to a system that rewards open theft and cronyism?
Widows is less appealing when it aims for cleverness, trying to trick audiences about the nature of the heist the women hope to pull off to pay back the Mannings—and the nature of the man who planned it. Some have compared Widows to Heat, but this feels wrong insofar as Michael Mann's opus was never particularly concerned with shrewdness, per se: his criminals were competent, and any cunning in their heists served only as a demonstration of said competence. As Vincent Hanna put it about Neil McCauley's crew, "M.O.? Is that they're good. … Let's start looking for recent highline burglaries that have mystified us."
But Heat was really a relationship drama, first and foremost, a movie about men and the sacrifices they make—or can't make—in the line of work. None of the crimes committed by McCauley and his gang were particularly clever in the way that we think of capers as clever. It wasn't a heist movie in the sense of The Sting or The Score or The Bank Job. We were never really wondering how they'd get in and get out and get away. The stakes were different, deeper, and more personal.
Widows has a great deal of that depth but cheapens it by favoring something splashy and complicated, undercutting what had made it so interesting elsewhere. It's not a fatal flaw—Widows is still well worth seeing—but it is a flaw nevertheless.