‘Widows’ is thrilling female-led heist


Left to right: Elizabeth Debicki, Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo in “Widows,” directed by Steve McQueen.

Heist films are one of my absolute favorite genres in all of cinema. There is a unique thrill to the experience of watching a group of people get pushed to the edge. To a point of desperation so deep that they resort to planning out and executing a majorly complicated crime.

Viola Davis stars as Veronica Rawlings, a crime boss’ widow left to deal with the crime and consequences he left behind.

It is a genre that has given us such masterpieces as Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven,” Michael Mann’s “Heat,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” and Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing.” While it might not be a masterpiece on the level of those films, Steve McQueen’s “Widows,”  is a thrilling contextualized revamp of a lot of core concepts that are cornerstones for the genre.

“Widows” is McQueen’s unusual follow up to his masterful Best Picture winning opus “12 Years a Slave.” This is unusual due to it being a rather big-budget genre studio film. McQueen’s prior works are very deep and artful illustrations of full fleshed out characters and great historical suffering.

However, the one thing I found most surprising is how McQueen translates these deep thematics to the framework of a contemporary heist film. The film follows Veronica Rawlings (a brilliant balance of stern and fragile from Viola Davis) as she not only mourns the death of her political bank robber husband, Harry (Liam Neeson), but faces the violent and frightening consequences of his actions against crime boss politician Jamal Manning that lead to his demise and leaving a hefty debt for his wife to deal with.

In pursuit of saving her own ass, Veronica seeks help from the widows (all-around tremendous turns from Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Ervio) left behind by Harry’s partners in crime who also perished following a botched job. With her assembled group of strong yet desperate women, Veronica plans out her epic heist to free herself from the strangling grip of her husband’s debt.

Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki in “Widows.”

Through this group and his narrative, McQueen navigates the tense shaky ground of the modern world. He paints society as something that has pushed us all to our absolute breaking points where we kill, steal, betray, threaten and completely crack. We are all walking powder kegs in the eyes of “Widows.” It’s an intense and very genuine agency for the central heist but also makes for a narrative that is overstuffed, sometimes exhausting but always totally engrossing.

McQueen and screenwriter Gillian Flynn choose to tackle seemingly countless social and political themes throughout the course of “Widows.” Of course the core of the politics of the film come from a detailed and emotional look at systemic misogyny in our culture. Then through a jumpy subplot following Manning and his brother (an absolutely terrifying and perfect turn by Daniel Kaluuya) as they run for Alderman in Chicago against nepotistic good ole boy Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell with a deeply questionable Chicagoan accent), McQueen and Flynn attempt to dig deep into political corruptness, distrust and apathy. Then in a third act reveal, they try to sink their teeth into problems involving police brutality and gun violence and that’s around the point where I began to find the film a tad exhausting.

I’m all for broad brush strokes in filmmaking such as this but there comes a point where you pile on more than you can take and that third act reveal is around where “Widows” reaches that point. Luckily the film rebounds with a climactic heist that is truly on the level  of what Michael Mann has been able to concoct with his filmography. It’s tightly paced, genuinely intense, and immaculately detailed with interesting sight and sound techniques (as is the case for most of this film).

Most of “Widows” was shot right on location in Chicago and part of what makes the film so singular is how deeply rooted in the city and its melting pot of problems it is. One of the most striking sequences in the film is a long tracking shot detailing Mulligan leaving a stump speech in a low-income neighborhood right into a parallel upper class rich neighborhood. It’s a moment that may fly over the head of most viewers but for people who are truly familiar with the area, it’s a brutally honest look at the environmental extremes of Chicago.

“Widows” has been toward the top of everyone’s most anticipated film lists for the fall season this year and for good reason. It features one of today’s most exciting auteurs working with one of the finest ensembles ever assembled for a story that is both fresh in its approach of a trusty genre and its political and social relevance. Despite its ambitious thematic flaws, “Widows” perseveres to be a thoughtful, exhilarating and melancholic groundbreaker for women in the action genre.