“Heist thriller” is not the first genre that would have come to mind when imagining the next project for the Oscar-winning English director Steve McQueen. His previous three features, 12 Years a Slave, Shame, and Hunger, were all very different—a historical drama based on an antebellum slave narrative, a character portrait of an alienated sex addict in present-day Manhattan, and a chronicle of the last days of an Irish political prisoner on a hunger strike, respectively—but they had in common that they stood far outside the world of Hollywood genre filmmaking, with its archetypal characters, familiar story beats, and twist-based suspense. They were art films, serious in intent and somber in mood, sometimes (as with Shame) to the point of po-faced humorlessness.
Widows is not quite a “caper” film, insofar as that word suggests the cavorting of baby goats. There’s little about this dark vision of urban corruption and do-it-yourself grand larceny that’s fun, per se. But working with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, with whom he adapted the script from a 1980s British television series by Prime Suspect creator Lynda La Plante, McQueen has created a tense and satisfying action drama with a decidedly feminist bent.
His heroine, Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) is a representative for the Chicago Teachers Union who finds herself forced into the world of high-end thievery when her husband Harry (Liam Neeson), a professional criminal, leads one last job that leaves the whole team reduced to ashes. After his memorial, she arranges a meeting with two other women widowed by the same incident: Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), a mother of two who runs a quinceañera dress shop, and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), who was abused by her late husband and, in his absence, finds herself broke and adrift. This tense meeting takes place in a Finnish-style sauna, a location which seems like a nod to the many Mafia and cop movies with similar scenes in all-male steam rooms. When a stranger briefly interrupts their conversation, Veronica ladles an unseemly amount of water onto the steam-producing coals—a way of chasing out the intruder while also proving to the two other women that she won’t hesitate to turn up the heat when necessary.
Veronica, a woman of few words whose main emotional connection is with the small dog that accompanies her everywhere, doesn’t reach out to these women to form a grief support group. She reaches out because a gang boss with political aspirations, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), is putting pressure on her to come up with the $2 million her dead husband owed him. If she doesn’t pay up in a month, he warns her in a menacing uninvited visit to her home, he will do much worse than just momentarily suspend her whimpering dog by its collar. We know Jamal means business because we’ve seen how he treats his underlings at the black church he’s commandeered for his gang headquarters. When his henchmen get out of line, Jamal’s brother Jatemme (a terrifying Daniel Kaluuya) dispatches them with an immoderate degree of sadistic pleasure.
While Veronica attempts to organize a grand heist that will pay back her husband’s debtors and also provide a nest egg for herself and her co-conspirators, we also meet Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and his father, Tom (Robert Duvall), Irish ward politicians of the old school, who are attempting to hang on to the alderman seat their family has held for generations in a district that’s now majority black. The upcoming election between Jack and Jamal structures the whole film, though McQueen seems sometimes to forget about this storyline for long stretches, understandably preferring to spend time with the dynamic trio of Davis, Rodriguez, and Debicki. A scene where the gawky but intermittently overconfident Alice visits a gun show to buy weapons for the big job achieves something no moment in a Steve McQueen film has before (at least on purpose). It made me laugh.
The 130-minute Widows keeps a lot of story plates spinning, with subplots about a transactional relationship between Debicki’s Alice and a wealthy land developer (Lukas Haas), as well as a hard-up hairdresser (Broadway musical star Cynthia Erivo) who agrees to work as a getaway driver for the lady heist gang and in the process pulls off the impressive feat of staring down Viola Davis. At times Widows can feel overstuffed and slackly paced, but there’s at least one third-act twist that’s genuinely shocking, and the energy never flags when the wounded, smoldering Davis is on screen. Without giving too much away, the act of orchestrating a complicated armed robbery with three normally law-abiding women becomes much more for Veronica than a means of securing the money she needs to save her life. It’s also a way of lending meaning to that life, of proving she can be tougher and smarter than her late husband (who at first appears to us in hunky dreamboat mode, but later, through flashbacks, acquires more dimension and more darkness).
McQueen’s commentary about race and class is seldom overt, but it infuses the whole film, starting with an opening scene in which Davis and Neeson do some hot and heavy making out in their marital bed. The fact that the frank sexual pairing of a middle-aged black woman with a middle-aged white man feels at all groundbreaking in 2018 is itself a damning statement on how far Hollywood has yet to go in the representation of race, gender, and age all at once. Later on, Farrell’s shady politico takes a chauffeured car from the rundown neighborhood he represents to the posh one he lives in. He’s conversing with his assistant the whole time about the impending election, but we never see them. Instead the camera stays outside the car, observing the change in the city streets as they drive.
Not every attempt the director makes to broaden the focus in this way works. The juxtaposition of the climactic political debate with the long-awaited heist feels somehow unfocused and rushed, and I wished I had known more of the details of how the robbery was supposed to work, if only to add to the sense of panic when things went inevitably wrong. But McQueen largely succeeds at something few directors even try: to set a satisfyingly twisty crime plot in the broader social context of political corruption and systemic racial and gender bias. Late in the film there’s a moment when Davis’ Veronica—a woman who’s been defined by her ferocity and refusal to break—offers another female character a rare, hard-won smile. This female-driven heist drama may not end on a vision of matriarchal utopia, but it offers a glimpse of something outside the rotten system that we, like the widows, have lived in for so long we’ve forgotten there’s any other way.