Published Nov 12, 2018Backstory isn't usually all that important in a heist movie — all you really need is someone with a lot of money, and someone else with an elaborate plan to steal it.
Widows, on the other hand, is all backstory. The latest film from Steve McQueen — based on a British TV show from the '80s — takes place in the wake of a robbery gone wrong. In the opening scene, a team of criminals are killed on a job, leaving their widows with a mountain of money troubles. Coping with grief and family commitments, the women team up to execute a heist using the plans their husbands left behind.
Before we even get to the heist, we spend a lot of time with Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis), who is emotionally crushed by the loss of her husband Harry (Liam Neeson). In the film's bleak, slow-moving first half, we often see her reminiscing about former good times while laying alone in their marital bed. When crooked criminal-turned-politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) comes after her for a debt, she cooks up the scheme to continue her husband's legacy of robbery.
She ropes in fellow widows Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) for the scheme. The former is a shopkeeper who lost her business due to her late husband's debts, while the latter is now making a living through a sugar daddy service, so they're both on board to make a quick million.
All of this takes place against the backdrop of a Chicago municipal election, as the heist plot becomes entangled with Manning's alderman campaign against the wealthy Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell with a questionable American accent). This makes for a slightly scattered buildup, with lots of minor characters and seemingly disparate plot lines. With a total runtime of over two hours, Widows takes a long time to get going.
Once the heist picks up, however, the whole story suddenly clicks into place. There's a brilliant and unexpected twist, plus some late-in-the-game narrative exposition that shines a new light on the characters' motivations. The heist itself isn't all that clever, but the way the plot slowly unfurls is both brainy and emotionally intense.
Widows demands patience of its viewers, and it's definitely not an Ocean's-style caper. Rather, it's a gritty crime drama that unflinchingly tackles big themes like racism, female empowerment, corrupt authority and family trauma. That's a lot of ground to cover in one film, but McQueen is up to the task.
(Twentieth Century Studios)