Some films serve to illustrate not only their own excellence, but the failure of others. Steve McQueen’s latest, Widows, is a stark reminder of how well-made thrillers can do more than just stress viewers out. They can be character studies in their own right, too.
Viola Davis is the first of the titular widows encountered in this modern heist movie. McQueen uses film’s opening moments to brutally explore the final minutes shared by her and her husband, a professional crook played with surprising distinction by Liam Neeson. We then move to three other households for similarly mundane goodbyes. All the while, intercut moments of carnage show us the rapid unravelling of the robbery job the men are heading to, and their eventual, explosive demise.
Dead men can still owe debts, though, and it becomes clear that Neeson et al were embroiled in local politics, whether they knew it or not. The race for a local governmental position is tight between Colin Farrell’s weaselly Jack Mulligan and Brian Tyree Henry’s street-reared Jamal Manning. A chunk of the latter’s money was vaporised in the blast, and his dead-eyed lieutenant, a superb Daniel Kaluuya, is put on the hunt for a refund.
Confronted by Manning in the comfort of her own home, Veronica is cornered. Her initial terror hardens into cold resolve, and she enlists the other robbers’ widows to help her pull off an audaciously believable theft.
Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki are the two who join her plan, each bringing determination but a startling lack of expertise. Debicki’s brittle, sharp Alice is particularly well-pitched, and her growing confidence becomes a match for Veronica’s bravado in time. Rodriguez’s more steady determination is nicely played off her inexperience – these characters have entirely credible suitability for their tasks.
The women at the heart of this story are surrounded by foul men. Farrell and Neeson are joined by an all-too-brief appearance from Jon Bernthal, mean as ever, and by a spitting-mad Robert Duvall. In truth, Duvall’s frailty and age are convincing, but his actual emotion is less so, an awkward facet of father-son scenes with Farrell.
These scenes feel key, though, in rooting the narrative. They make it clear that the world isn’t one of robbers and cops, but of slimey power-brokers and disadvantaged pawns. Veronica aims to smash this setup, and the lengthy planning of her revenge-robbery ratchets the tension nicely. It comes together in one of the more tied-down heists of modern times.
McQueen’s direction is superb, and the performances and character arcs he sketches are beautifully done. In particular, some of the visual clues that come to fruition in the heist are delightful touches. A searing, pulsing soundtrack is well-chosen, too, driving us through scenes.
Widows is near faultless – it is a well-judged, and extremely well-made genre film, a reminder of the potential that such films can hold. It will be interesting to see how it fares in an awards season that threatens to disappoint.