This review contains spoilers.
The typical heist film, with its complex, choreographed robberies and suave criminal masterminds, is not the first genre that comes to mind in conjunction with cinematic realism.
Director Steve McQueen’s newest character study, “Widows,” uses the heist film to explore the racial intricacies of corruption in present day Chicago.
Written by McQueen and “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn, the film mixes the sleazy melodrama and enticing action of the crime thriller with a gritty, authentic look at how loss affects women of varying backgrounds and socio-economic statuses.
The film stars Academy Award-winner Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez (“The Fast and the Furious”) and Elizabeth Debicki (“The Great Gatsby”) as the widows, along with Cynthia Erivo (“Bad Times at the El Royale”) as their partner in crime.
The movie opens with snapshots of the women’s married lives.
Wealthy Veronica Rawlins (Davis) lies in bed with her adoring husband (Liam Neeson), their mixed-race coupling causally presented to the audience. Alice (Debicki) recovers from a night with her abusive husband (Jon Bernthal). Linda (Rodriguez) spends time with her husband (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and kids in her clothing store.
Then it all falls apart in a robbery gone wrong, and the husbands burn to a crisp in their van as the S.W.A.T. team closes in.
Before the widows have time to grieve, Veronica is confronted by criminal Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) to come up with the $2 million her husband owes him. With no one to trust, Davis reaches out to her fellow widows to come up with a plan before Manning and his deadly strongman Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) knock them out of commission.
Filled with intricate plot twists and brutal violence, “Widows” starts slow and ends with a bang, the talented ensemble cast giving tremendous performances.
McQueen’s intention for the film is clear from interviews. He states that the film is a “roller-coaster ride” of thrills but ultimately about “our current social, economic environment mirror reflecting back on the reality of its surroundings.”
“Widows” utilizes its crowd-pleasing, action-thriller format to address intersectional racial politics and delve deeply into character and setting.
Davis and Neeson’s interracial marriage depicts the reality of many American couples. While their marriage is loving, it is also wrought with the challenges mixed-race couples often face.
The racial politics of Chicago, along with examinations of intimacy, are also discussed by the film.
Another plot aspect is Jamal Manning’s run for alderman of 18th ward against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), an Irish politician whose family has claimed the position for 60 years. Mulligan struggles to establish himself outside the blatantly racist policies and opinion of his father (Robert Duvall). However, his own program, Minority Woman Own Work, exploits the people of the 18th ward as much as his father.
Corruption on all sides blurs the lines of good and evil. All of the characters are criminals, commiting murder, theft and blackmail; however, they all do it for complex reasons, from the thrill of the game to the well-being of their families. This disputes the story of the hardened criminal only out for themself.
Although Davis is the clear lead, the rest of the female ensemble matches her transparent realness, showing determination against the odds stacked against them.
Debicki, brilliant in this year’s “The Tale,” makes the gradual transition from victim abused by her late husband and mother to empowered savior of her own destiny. Rodriguez, often pigeonholed in standard action roles, makes the most of her role as tenacious mother. Erivo rounds out the cast with wit and raw power, the camera closing in on her muscular forearms as she punches a body bag. In “Widows,” beauty is strength.
“Widows” is an ambitious film, weaving entertainment and social awareness in an engrossing, twisty package. It’s worth the ride.