Women often pay the price for men’s transgressions—or at least, that’s the conclusion Steve McQueen comes to in his raw, tense, and spectacularly acted action thriller Widows. The film is set in the aftermath of a deadly Chicago robbery that claims the lives of four men who leave behind grieving wives and unpaid debt. Crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) wants Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis) to fulfill her deceased husband Harry’s (Liam Neeson) obligations, forcing her to assemble the other wives to carry out their spouses’ final heist. While the burden of executing the robbery is chiefly on Veronica, all the women have to come to grips with the perilous consequences of their husbands’ secret lives.
While the women are hesitant to get involved in criminal activities, they don’t have many other options: Linda’s (Michelle Rodriguez) husband sold her dress shop out from underneath her without her permission; Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) has no marketable skills, so she’s unable to provide for herself; and Belle (Cynthia Erivo), who initially works as Linda’s babysitter, joins the heist because she’s also in dire financial straits. Police protection isn’t possible, given that the city’s corrupt government is in cahoots with the very people attempting to blackmail them. And trying to escape Chicago’s seedy underbelly might hasten their demise. Their best and only option is to pull off a robbery big enough to repay their husbands’ debts and keep their own families afloat.
Betrayal is intrinsic to Widows: In order to right their husbands’ wrongs, they must accept that they were intentionally left in the dark by the men they loved. It’s a more extreme version of the internal motivation that leads Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), in Ocean’s 8, to orchestrate a splashy heist during the Met Gala. Sure, diamonds are a girl’s best friend, but is there anything more satisfying than framing the spineless man who sent you to prison for a crime he committed? Even the dizzying plot twists in 2014’s Gone Girl center around Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike) exacting revenge on a cheating husband who takes her for granted. When men err in these narratives, women feel justified in wrestling back control of their lives, even in ways that are unambiguously criminal. In Widows, these women’s actions are driven not just by the need to get even, but by their need to survive.
The film’s primary narrative—planning the heist—necessitates a secondary flurry of illegal activities as pressure from Manning and his murderous brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) mounts. Alice has to buy guns, so she pretends to be an abused wife trying to protect herself. Linda scams her way into the home of a recent widower as she searches for a specific safe. And when the women realize the safe belongs to local politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) Veronica must case his home. Each woman is forced to make choices that betray their values but guarantee their survival. In his first encounter with Veronica, Manning threatens to harm her dog Olivia, a clear signal to her that he is willing to do them both real harm. Later in the film, Jatemme and his goons beat her chauffer Bash (Garret Lee Dillahunt) bloody; the pressure is on, and Veronica transfers this panic and desperation to the other women when she threatens them into participating.
Veronica’s husband’s betrayal is compounded by a discovery that upends the life she thought they’d built together. The revelation forces a confrontation with the memories she held dear and the newly revealed truth. The pain she feels as she uncovers the things that had been hidden from her have to be pushed aside as she fights to rebuild her life. Survival is of the utmost importance, and anything that isn’t in service of that goal must be pushed aside.
As McQueen’s most commercial film to date, it’s a shame Widows wasn’t given the marketing push it deserved. Here, he blends the prestige performances of his former projects with the heart-thumping action of any of Tom Cruise’s best, anchored of course by the inimitable Viola Davis, who visibly pushes every actor with whom she’s onscreen to the far reaches of their talents. Elizabeth Debicki in particular finally gives a performance that forces you to take notice after a string of roles in which she flies mostly under the radar. Brian Tyree Henry caps a banner year with a part that lets him show a little more menace and edge, but it’s Daniel Kaluuya who is the true standout, bringing a terror so visceral to the screen that you’ll tense up every time he appears.
Though the film definitely feels slightly overstuffed in parts, it’s only because there’s so much that is happening that an audience will want to stay with, luxuriate in and savor. Every choice is intentional and indicative of a character beat, including the much-lauded tracking shot that says more about gentrification and the state of Chicago than whole other films. It’s the best part of bringing an auteur to what is otherwise a conventional heist film. There’s nothing here that won’t make you glad you came.
Widows is currently playing in theaters.
Cate Young (@battymamzelle): smugsexual, thundercunt hagbeast.