In his first feature film since the Best Picture-winning 12 Years a Slave (2013), director Steve McQueen returns with a slick, taut thriller about race and crime and politics. There's a police shooting. A heist gone wrong. A racially divisive alderman's race on Chicago's South Side. Another heist! These storylines, brought to you by a huge and hugely talented ensemble cast, converge in a script written by McQueen and novelist Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects).
Opening area-wide on Friday, the film coats what might have been a conventional popcorn burglar flick in arthouse gloss — stronger script, better look, better acting.
The film's title, Widows, refers to three women brought together by the deaths of their husbands in a robbery gone wrong. Veronica (Viola Davis) is their determined ringleader, a former employee of the Chicago Teachers Union who married a prominent criminal, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson). She enlists small-business owner Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and professional escort Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) to pull off Rawlings' next planned heist themselves.
It would take too long, and give too much away, to explain the many ways in which the heist is tied to a contentious alderman's race in Chicago, which itself is tied to the first heist. But rarely has a political storyline been integrated so effectively into an otherwise formulaic crime story. The gist of the political tension is that after redistricting, the Mulligans, a white Irish political dynasty, must defend a long-held alderman's seat against a popular black candidate, Jamaal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry, from TV's Atlanta), a former criminal himself. When Manning's campaign funding dries up, he unleashes his brother (Daniel Kaluuya) to collect a debt from Veronica Rawlings. Kaluuya, whose eyes starred in last year's Get Out, is here a cold and ruthless bagman. This sounds rudimentary, but by giving the film's crimes, and criminals, rich and complex backstories, the action becomes much more exhilarating.
Narratively, my big qualm was not the ultimate heist — Veronica and her team choreograph their plan plausibly enough. It was the readiness with which both Linda and Alice agreed to the scheme. It's hard to buy how these women, whose lives have just been so rocked by criminal associations, would immediately agree to participate.
But McQueen and his crew of production designers, plus his director of photography, Sean Bobbitt, paint Chicago in vivid and sharply contrasting color templates. We see how Rawlings' bright white penthouse life and Jack Mulligan's somber hardwood home are worlds away from the poor black ward where the action largely transpires. The pacing is quick, driven by the complicated, interwoven plot. But it's also patient, with powerful moments of introspection and ample character development. The camera lingers on Viola Davis as she screams, on Michelle Rodriguez as she weighs her options, on Daniel Kaluuya as he stares down an underling.
In what might be a Top-10 scene of the year, Jack Mulligan laments the political family he was born into and expresses doubts about maintaining power for its own sake. His father Tom (Robert Duvall), waits until he's finished and then launches into an attack on his character. "Fuck you and the horse you came in on," he shouts, kicking off an expletive-laden screed. When you assemble this many talented actors, even short, throwaway scenes have much to savor.