When last we heard from director Steve McQueen U.K., his movie 12 YEARS A SLAVE had won best picture. Five years later he finally has a followup, and it’s a violent, artfully crafted heist movie. Now you’re earning that name, my friend.
It’s credited as “based on ‘Widows’ by Lynda La Plante,” which seems to refer to the 1983 ITV mini-series, though there’s also a book version that says “SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE” on the cover, and I have found no definitive answer as to which La Plante wrote first. Anyway, McQueen adapted whatever it was he adapted with Gillian Flynn of GONE GIRL (both book and movie) fame.
Liam Neeson (THE DEAD POOL), Jon Bernthal (THE ACCOUNTANT), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO) and Coburn Goss (MAN OF STEEL) star as a Chicago-based crew of highly skilled, even highlier armed and armoured robber motherfuckers in the vein of HEAT or L.A. TAKEDOWN or DEN OF THIEVES or POINT BREAK or POINT BREAK REMAKE. And by “star” I mean for a couple minutes at the very beginning we see a tiny bit of their heist intercut with them saying goodbye to their wives beforehand and then they get blown up. You barely even see that last guy’s face. Because this is not about dudes like that. It’s about their loved ones who have to clean up their mess.
Also lost in the explosion is $2 million cash belonging to the Manning brothers, Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry, HOTEL ARTEMIS) and Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya, SICARIO). Jamal is in the middle of running against Colin Farrell (MIAMI VICE) for alderman of his ward, but he still finds the time to personally visit Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis, OUT OF SIGHT), the widow of Neeson’s crew leader character, and demand the money repaid. He finds a way to make petting her dog menacing.
Atlanta is my favorite show on TV these days and for all the well-deserved praise thrown toward creator Donald Glover and weirdo sidekick Lakeith Stanfield I think Henry as Paper Boi is the unsung MVP. The exasperation burned across his face as he puts up with increasingly ridiculous shit is so funny and relatable and true. I get more laughs from his expressions than anything else on the show.
So I was kind of excited for him for a second when he was introduced talking about helping his community as alderman and I thought he got to play a good guy this time. Nope. He’s a terror. He still has those sad eyes, but he reminds me of an Elmore Leonard villain. Not one of the ones that are dangerous partly because they’re dumb – the ones that are straight up vicious. And he’s not even the scariest Manning brother.
I never would’ve guessed that the Kaluuya of GET OUT had this kind of malevolence in him. Of the various crime and action movie tropes that McQueen shows respect to, the most effective might be Jatemme’s “just how evil is he” scenes, particularly the one where he terrorizes two of his men (Chuck Inglish and Sir Michael Rocks of the group The Cool Kids) by making them beatbox and freestyle for him. He leans into the rapper’s face and bugs his eyes out and everything he can to throw him off his game. Jatemme is not honorable, and he’s a total sadists. He lives to toy with his prey, savoring their fear. He especially loves the time honored technique of pretending like he’s being nice and reasonable in such a way that the victim is pretty fuckin sure he’s not actually being nice and reasonable, but has to play along hoping not to get shot or something. Which is a false hope.
But Veronica is no pushover. That’s what this is about. These women were not part of their husbands’ business, whether by exclusion or by choice. I don’t think it would ever occur to anyone that they can step up, but they will. Veronica’s husband left behind a notebook with detailed plans for a $5 million caper, so she convinces the other widows of what they have to do.
There’s Linda (Michelle Rodriguez, THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS 1, 4, 6, 7 and 8, RESIDENT EVIL 1, and 5), a mother of two young kids who suddenly loses her Quinceanera shop that she didn’t know her husband didn’t really own anymore. And there’s Alice (Elizabeth Debicki, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.), who has been putting up with Bernthal’s character’s abuse, but isn’t gonna put up with jack shit anymore.
Some of this is a matter of being used to a certain lifestyle inflated by crime and then losing it. Boo hoo. They’re not as legit of underdogs as the women in SET IT OFF, it’s fair to point out. But they’re the good guys in this broken world and the performances are great and make you root for each of them. Veronica figures out how to retain the services of her husband’s driver Bash (Garrett Dillahunt, BRAVEN), kind of a lovable dummy. She’s the boss and has an “I’m not here to make friends” attitude that doesn’t go over so well with the others. She expects them, with no instruction, to know how to do things like find out what building a set of blueprints come from or buy a certain type of guns or vehicles. So they figure it out.
A candidate for best character is Belle (Cynthia Erivo, BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE), the one who can box and run fast and has muscular arms. She’s not a widow – she’s someone Linda hired and got to know from a babysitting app. So she’s there just because she’s a hard worker.
I’m sure you could call this a female empowerment movie, but it’s also just a story that’s about women and respects them as characters. They know that everyone just thinks they’re the wives, and they use that to their advantage. They’re left to pick up the pieces and though they first meet in a spa (no men around) they make their plans surrounded by their husbands’ locker room shit. But they don’t, like, turn into female TAKEN. I think it’s interesting that this feels closest to the artful crime movies like HEAT and THIEF, because those are movies obsessed with masculinity. Stories about dudes who brood and shit-talk and make speeches using lingo and are addicted to the adrenaline rush and neglect their wives and children because they’re so driven and hard to relate to. I suppose you could accuse Belle of that since she works so much. At the end I really hoped she was gonna stop taking side gigs.
But there’s no sense of macho competition in their robbery. It’s a genuine sense of responsibility to establish a new life or provide for their children or to prove something to themselves and no one else.
Don’t be expecting some kind of elaborate OCEAN’S ELEVEN type heist. It’s simpler and quicker. Any action takes up a small fraction of the movie. That said, the vehicle chase stuff that does happen is exhilarating, shot in a way that reminds me of the opening of UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION. McQueen is working with his usual editor, Joe Walker, who also cut BLACKHAT and SICARIO. Stunt coordinator Doug Coleman also worked on BLACKHAT, and he did the SICARIO sequel. And THE REVENANT.
I think McQueen really likes this stuff, but it’s his interest in class themes, sympathetic characterization and ambiguity that gives it a little extra kick. Your mileage will vary, some restrictions may apply, but to me it never feels like an interruption like the political themes in KILLING THEM SOFTLY or the remake of SUSPIRIA sometimes did. He works threads about interracial relationships, racial profiling and entrenched political power organically into the world of these characters. The coolest storytelling choice is to stage a long conversation between Jack Mulligan (Farrell) and his assistant (Molly Kunz) in one shot with them in the backseat of a limo and the camera on the front window so we only see a reflection over the driver’s face and a slice of Chicago scenery. In a few minutes of uninterrupted footage they drive from the barren black neighborhood where they’re running to the ritzy gated house that serves as the campaign office.
I like the way some scenes seem to be headed in a standard Hollywood type of direction and then they just… don’t. Example: Linda is trying to find an architect she needs information from, turns out the architect is dead and she really offends her widower with her lies and is asked to leave. But then she tells him she lost her husband, cries, hugs him, starts making out with him… I’m thinking okay, she’s going to seduce him.
But then she pulls away, horrified, apologizes, never sees the guy again. It wasn’t a trick. It was two grieving people overflowing with confused emotions, then thinking better of it. A human moment.
Even more impressive, the scene that reveals a plot twist through inference without straight up saying it or visually confirming it at first. We know what’s going on from a couple clues and by Veronica’s reaction to them. She’s obviously thinking what we’re thinking.
With the exception of Jatemme I don’t think anybody here is 100% cut and dry good or bad. Our heroines are, you know, criminals. Mulligan is corrupt as shit and always scheming to get a cut of everything, but I wonder if he may cynically think he’s the good guy, pushing for transit and small business loans and things that could actually help people, even if he’s doing it for his own profit. He seems like he might think of himself as an idealist in comparison to his powerful dad (Robert Duvall, THX-1138), but even Dad shows deference to Veronica for being a representative of the teacher’s union. And Jamal is running for office for gangster purposes, but he may really intend to serve the neighborhood’s interests more than Mulligan Jr. would. We don’t really know.
Just like FIRST MAN, this is a cast that’s stacked to the rafters and one of them is Lukas Haas (THE TRIPPER). This time he wasn’t wearing an astronaut helmet, so I recognized him. Also Jacki Weaver from ANIMAL KINGDOM is in it a little bit. And Kevin J. O’Connor (LORD OF ILLUSIONS)! I guess the last thing I saw him in was THE MASTER, so it’s not new for the muse of Stephen Sommers to be in a respectable type movie, but it’s still really cool to see him and he’s very memorable as a weaselly yet likable underworld figure.
I’ve gotten used to John Bernthal popping up very briefly in movies and making a big impression (see WOLF OF WALL STREET, SICARIO, WIND RIVER), but this might be a new record for establishing a character (a scumbag this time) in the shortest amount of screen time. It’s almost comical how brief his part is.
But the widows are running the show and they’re all outstanding. It’s not surprising Davis can play a character like this, but it’s cool to see. She’s hurt and she’s scared but she’s insistent that she’s gonna win. Likewise Rodriguez, who I enjoy so much in lowbrow movies, it’s cool to see her in a fancypants one. Erivo is mostly a stage actress who was in The Color Purple and Sister Act. (I wonder if Burglar is next?) I’d predict she’ll get a bunch of good roles after being so badass in this, but she’s already playing Harriet Tubman in a Kasi Lemmons movie, so I’m too late.
Debicki is another really impressive newcomer, in some ways playing the most complex of the widows, the one trying to prove herself to the other women, find a man who treats her the way she wants and maintain her identity as a party girl all at the same time. She seems like the least adaptable to this armed robber business, so it’s fun to watch her unorthodox methods of pulling it off. She also has an interesting look because she’s 6′ 2″ and they don’t try to hide it – she towers over everybody else in the movie, including men.
High falutin’ directors doing genre with class but not condescension, good crime tales that leave you thinking about specific characters and incidents and ideas more than plot, movies that seem really good at first but seem truly great the more you think about them days later – these are a few of my favorite things. WIDOWS is a good one.
P.S. SPECIAL SPOILER SECTION because I want to talk about the very end. I love that Veronica, having achieved what she needed to achieve, is no longer the harsh boss lady. She’s even a little vulnerable in her seeming desperation to have a friendship. And it’s sweet for Alice because so much of her arc is about being disgusted by everyone treating each other as transactions. Her transaction with Veronica is over and now both of them are just living their lives and now maybe they can be friends.
The mini-series and book have two sequels: WIDOWS II and SHE’S OUT (made ten years later). I don’t think we’ll be seeing adaptations of those, though, because the original keeps the Neeson character alive and part II is about hunting him down for revenge.
P.P.S. Now that I think about it it’s kind of cool for Neeson to have a movie that bridges his post-TAKEN pulp movie status with his SCHINDLER’S LIST-era respectability.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.