Steve McQueen’s Widows is a deft, intelligent female heist flick

There isn’t much that Widows doesn’t do right or radically.

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A politician is arguing with his stick-in-the-mud father about the painting he’s just bought. The son says it’s art, the old man calls it wallpaper. On and on they go – art, wallpaper, art, wallpaper – until it occurs to you that a director who places this exchange near the start of his film, as Steve McQueen has done in Widows, must be safe in the knowledge that viewers won’t be having the same debate about the movie. His confidence is not misplaced.

McQueen and his co-writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) have transposed Lynda La Plante’s early-1980s mini-series from London to modern-day Chicago, retaining the central idea of a group of widows who complete the robbery that their husbands were planning. The men died trying to steal $2m from the city council campaign fund of the politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), but they went up in flames along with the loot. When Jamal calls on Veronica (Viola Davis), who was married to the ringleader, Harry (Liam Neeson), it is to inform her that she has inherited the debt, and payment is due.

Veronica, who is so tough she wears make-up in a sauna and dares it to run, goes straight to Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) to propose finishing what their husbands hadn’t started, with the aid of Harry’s notebook crammed with plans. What they have in their favour is who they are: “No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.” Each woman exploits a perceived social disadvantage to get what she wants. Linda lapses briefly into Spanish, playing the role of the hapless naif, and even uses her grief to gain leverage. Alice, who is Polish, resorts to stereotype (mail-order bride, abusive spouse) to persuade a woman to buy guns on her behalf. An earlier vignette, in which Alice’s husband (Jon Bernthal) orders her to cover up the shiner he gave her because it makes him feel bad, proves the lie isn’t far from the truth.

That’s typical of the screenplay’s deftness. When the gang needs a driver at short notice, it doesn’t seem incongruous, as it might in a less economically alert film, for Linda to ask her babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo) if she needs some extra cash, since we’ve already seen Belle abandoning her young daughter to look after Linda’s kids. (In a sharp, sad touch, Linda’s children are watching Ice Age on TV, as Belle’s daughter was when she left her 20 minutes earlier.)

It would be wrong to place all the credit on the script when every element of Widows expresses character and theme with intelligence and concision. The cut that transports us from Harry roaring playfully in
bed to the chaos of the robbery is startling, but it also makes dramatic sense: this is a man who has tried to compartmentalise his life, and failed. The film begins with a close-up of Veronica kissing Harry – “Never thought I’d marry a white man, or a criminal,” she says later, and the theme of race extends even to her wardrobe. The costume designer Jenny Eagan gives her a black top with a slick of white at the shoulder, and a black trouser-suit worn beneath a gleaming white jacket. Veronica has a white driver and carries her white pooch Olivia everywhere. She clutches the dog like a purse that completes the ensemble.

Bustling around the women are Jamal’s rival Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), and Jack’s father Tom (Robert Duvall), part of Chicago’s political dynasty, who thinks nothing of using racial epithets or referring to a female aide as a “redheaded paperweight”. Jamal also has a psychopathic brother, which gives the British actor Daniel Kaluuya a chance to do some menacing of his own after being menaced in Get Out. Among the numerous other supporting characters, it is men who are imperilled and placed in those roles (victim, sacrificial lamb) traditionally occupied by women.

But then there isn’t much that Widows doesn’t do right or radically, even down to the way it treats Olivia. How many times in films have we seen a dog introduced and then never glimpsed again, let alone taken for a walk? Not so here. Before the big heist, Veronica checks her in to a branch of Deluxe Sit and Stay. It’s that sort of attention to detail that helps make Widows not merely a top dog among thrillers but best in show. 

Widows (15)
dir: Steve McQueen

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the nation state