‘Widows’ is a thrilling heist movie that shows people at their worst

What do you do in a system that doesn't let you be good? For the characters of Widows, the answer is simple: survive. Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall), the longtime alderman of Chicago’s 18th Ward, lays this principle out plainly to his son Jack (Colin Farrell) as Jack runs to replace his retiring father on the City Council. We can do nothing to make the system better, the elder Mulligan says. All we can do is fend for ourselves.

It’s easy for him to say: the Mulligans have consolidated power quite successfully, and now enjoy the spoils of a millionaires’ life while representing an under-resourced black neighborhood of Chicago, purporting to give its people a voice while benefiting off their destitution. Their callousness has not gone unnoticed, however, and Jack faces a challenger in a community leader who looks like the people he aims to represent: Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry).

It doesn’t take long, however, to see that Manning is no hero. In director Steve McQueen’s (12 Years a Slave) shadowy vision of Chicago, no one really is. All the characters ascribe to Tom Mulligan’s ethos. As one side character says, the world is nothing but transactional. In a city where corruption is the norm, everyone has hardened themselves, committed to self-betterment at the expense of any hope of lasting reform.

While Jack grapples with the burden of upholding a system he would much rather leave behind, Manning has a different problem: a huge sum of his money has been stolen by a notorious group of robbers led by Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), money that would be very politically useful to have on hand. Rawlings and his crew are killed by the police during the robbery, but the money is blown up alongside them. Manning comes to Harry’s widow, Veronica (Viola Davis), to collect the debt, and gives her an ultimatum: one month for $2 million, or else.

With few options, Veronica turns to the widows of the men in Harry’s crew. Harry left behind a notebook detailing how to pull off a heist, and Veronica convinces the other widows, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), to attempt a heist with her in order to pay back Manning, and keep a little for themselves in the process.

It’s taken me five full paragraphs to lay out the plot of Widows, and I haven’t even gotten to any of the side action, or into spoiler territory. But the dense plotting of Widows is never an issue for the film. In fact, its density is a function of its thematic aims, showing just how deeply corruption is tied between politics, and the church, and race, and family, and every sort of institution or classification in the city. Screenplay writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) imbues her scripts with an unrivaled momentum, and Widows chugs along, stopping only for dramatic plot reveals. McQueen manages a delicate balancing act between these converging story lines, and by the time they coalesce the tension is at a fever pitch.

In managing all of these narratives, McQueen has created a unique heist movie with a combination of thrilling action and visual and thematic prestige that recalls The Departed. Like that Martin Scorsese classic, the action is the central plot point in Widows, but the film’s best and most intense moments come in the exchanges between characters. The heist was electrifying, but the scenes I’ll remember are those like the heated discussion between Jack and his campaign assistant Siobhan (Molly Kunz), or any scene involving Manning’s brother and personal enforcer, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya).

Jatemme is calm and deeply menacing. He’s a violent goon, but not unintelligent; as he hunts down his enemies, he can be seen reading a book, or trying to learn Spanish. Jatemme is a personified distillation of the corruption on display in Widows: he knows what he’s doing is wrong, and he charges forward without hesitation. Kaluuya turns in my favorite villain role since Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther, in which Kaluuya also starred.

The film is fundamentally about the women pulling off the heist, though, and Widows is grounded in their superb performances. Viola Davis is commanding as always, although I did have some issues with the consistency of her character arc. She goes from grieving widow to bad-ass criminal in an instant, and this transition is mostly carried by Davis’s considerable screen presence. The most potent performance comes from Debicki, a rising star who was also outstanding in The Tale earlier this year. Debicki has an expressive face reminiscent of classic Hollywood starlets, and she delivers a performance that walks the line between vulnerable and domineering. There may be little justice in the world of Widows, but if there’s any justice in the real world Debicki and Kaluuya will both earn Oscar nominations. The whole cast, it should be noted, is fantastic. I don’t want to list off praise for everyone with a speaking role, but they all deserve it.

McQueen punctuates the tense character exchanges with some truly bravura camerawork. Sometimes he uses camera movement to heighten the tension, as with one thrilling scene in which Kaluuya threatens some unwanted intruders as the camera intensely spins around them. Other times McQueen uses the camera to accentuate the film’s thematic elements. After Jack leaves a campaign event promising to create more opportunities for businesses owned by minority women in his ward he hops in his car, but the camera never joins him. Instead, McQueen places it on the hood. As Jack engages in a racist tirade about power and the pointlessness of the political machine, the camera captures the transition from the rundown neighborhood Jack just left to the palatial home his driver pulls up in front of. It’s a powerful repudiation of gentrification, and it’s the best scene of the movie.

This visual condemnation speaks to the other defining line of the movie: in addition to survival, the characters in Widows have an eye toward the future preservation of power, as laid out by Jack to Veronica. “What I've learned from men like my father and your husband is that you reap what you sow,” he says to her. “Let’s hope so,” Veronica coolly replies.

Widows delivers this message with a heavy sobriety. Everyone is accumulating power for its own sake, and no one can seem to escape the cycle. If it’s true that you reap what you sow, then nothing in this urban hellscape will ever change. But Widows ends with a rare moment of hope for the future. It’s not a big moment, and it’s no guarantee that things will get better. But it’s a sign that people still have the potential to escape the dour toxicity of corruption if they are willing to abandon the rules of those who came before them.

This is a powerful message, but it also left me feeling a little cold as I walked out of the theater. Widows is a well-rounded near-masterpiece, but I wish I’d had more to latch onto emotionally. Still, the crowd was really into it, audibly reacting to the film’s twists. I anticipate the awards season power, and box office, of Widows will continue to grow; it’s the rare awards contender that’s also a crowd-pleasing action flick. I feel like I’m immediately underrating the film. Few movies have characters as complex, or writing as shrewd, as Widows. It’s a film as deep as the corruption that defines its locale, and I can’t wait to see what I uncover upon a revisit.

Widows: 3.5 stars