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Film review: Widows

Viola Davis leads the charge in Steve McQueen's electric drama.


Neeson and Davis in a rare happy reflection.
  • Neeson and Davis in a rare happy reflection.

Steve McQueen's Widows was ballsy before it even showed up: You know going in that all the men, including a famous one (Liam Neeson), die in the beginning. (Note to Hollywood: Start more films like this.) Following McQueen's brutal, sobering Academy Award winner 12 Years A Slave, Widows looked to be a complete 180: A fun, flashy, feminist heist movie.

Well hold the hell up. It is certainly feminist—with a script by Gillian Flynn—but it is not very flashy and it is definitely not fun. There's no jazzy music rat-a-tatting while split screens show us various parts of this clever plan—just a bereaved, out-of-her-element, terrified woman (Viola Davis) stuck with her husband's mess and $2 million tab. This is not Ocean's anything.

Widows is set in Chicago, mostly in a working-class neighbourhood where legacy politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) plans to ascend to his father's (Robert Duvall) alderman seat. He's being challenged by a young upstart neighbourhood guy, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry, Paper Boi from Atlanta), a career criminal who also happens to be the guy Veronica (Davis)'s husband Harry (Neeson) owed a lot of money to when he died. Manning gives her until the day after the election, a month, to pay up.

With nowhere to turn—though clearly affluent, there were obviously many unasked questions in the Rawlings marriage—Veronica gathers the other widows of Harry's crew: Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth DeBicki) and Amanda (Carrie Coon), who declines to participate. Veronica plans to carry out Harry's next job, which will net $5 million: She pays her debt, they split the rest.

The heist setpiece is hardly the point—McQueen uses the story hook to discuss a staggering amount of subjects in a way that never feels preachy. There's the racial implications of the white Mulligans ruling a mostly African American ward for three decades; there's an interracial marriage—you can find whole essays on Neeson and Davis' opening kiss—and biracial child; there's political and police corruption in Chicago, a city with some of the worst gun violence in the United States; there's a civilian shooting by a police officer. The very act of building an action movie around a 53-year-old woman is itself political and ballsy (Jamie Lee Curtis, 60, just logged a huge hit with Halloween so fingers crossed we're on trend here).

It's unsettling, violent, smart, knotty and fucking terrific. It won't get the awards attention of 12 Years a Slave, but it should.

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Director: Steve McQueen

Writer: Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen

Producer: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Steve McQueen and Arnon Milchan

Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Garret Dillahunt, Carrie Coon and Jacki Weaver