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In Widows, Viola Davis’s heist crew captivates even when the story stumbles

Oscar-winner Steve McQueen returns with a bleakly pleasurable tale set on Chicago’s South Side.

Viola Davis leads a stacked cast in Widows.
Viola Davis leads a stacked cast in Widows.
Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Heist movies are cynical by nature, but even by those standards, Widows — the latest film from Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) — is exceptionally jaded. Whereas other heist films usually traffic in a tone of wry jubilation, or at least a feeling of the thieves having one-upped The Man, Widows ends on a somber note, with the feeling that almost everyone’s been wronged by the system, and that there’s little chance its many inherent ills will ever be permanently rectified.

Maybe it’s just realistic.

Based loosely on a British TV show that ran for two six-episode seasons in 1983 and 1985, Widows was adapted into a screenplay by McQueen and Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn. The film is set in Chicago among thieves, politicians, and women who’ve been wronged by life and by the men around them; the system is rigged against them, and the only way they’ll get any approximation of justice and safety is by reaching out and taking it for themselves.

It’s a good setup for a heist movie, especially one that wraps its story around Chicago politics. And there’s no denying that Widows is entertaining. Partly familiar and partly something all its own, the film still stumbles at times. But when it works, it’s enthralling.

Viola Davis and Cynthia Erivo in Widows
Viola Davis and Cynthia Erivo in Widows.
20th Century Fox

Widows layers social commentary into the familiar setup of a heist caper

Widows is a shift for McQueen, whose films (which also include Hunger and Shame) tend to be exquisitely crafted but punishing dramas. This one feels more “conventional” than his previous work, more sketched inside genre lines, set on Chicago’s South Side.

But if Widows is related to other heist films, it’s mostly on the surface, which follows familiar plot beats. A heist went bad, leaving Lisa (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), Amanda (Carrie Coon), and Veronica (Viola Davis) widowed and, to varying degrees, bereft. Veronica’s husband Harry (Liam Neeson) was the leader of the group of thieves — and soon after his death, she discovers that he left behind blueprints and plans for a $3 million job.

Meanwhile, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) is running for alderman, hoping to unseat Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), whose family — led by his nasty racist patriarch father (Robert Duvall) — has long held sway over the ward.

Manning is looking to represent the mostly black, mostly lower-income ward because he actually lives there, while Mulligan’s family lives as close to the limits as possible in a mansion. But Manning is also the boss of a crime gang, working with his ruthless brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya). So he’s also after the contracts that he’ll be able to grant to his friends.

Daniel Kaluyya and Brian Tyree Henry in Widows
Daniel Kaluyya and Brian Tyree Henry in Widows.
20th Century Fox

These two stories are intertwined mainly because the $2 million that Harry and his gang stole in the heist that led to their deaths — both the money and the men burned up in the fire it caused — belonged to Jamal Manning. Now Manning wants it back, a fact he makes very clear to Veronica, issuing a firm deadline and threatening big consequences.

The heist plans that Harry left behind seem like the only way out; Veronica, realizing she’s not the only one who is in danger from the Mannings, sets about convincing her fellow widows that they’d better do the job so they can pay back the money their husbands took.

Widows doesn’t always feel grounded, but it’s still richly entertaining

A cast this stacked can’t help but generate glory. The inimitable Viola Davis’s suffering and steely determination seem obviously destined for awards conversations. Brian Tyree Henry continues his run as the actor to watch, thanks to his appearance here as a charismatic and menacing political candidate as well as his devastating turn in Barry Jenkins’s upcoming If Beale Street Could Talk.

Elizabeth Debicki is mesmerizing as a woman who’s been wounded too many times and is ready to start taking what she deserves. And though she has only a bit part, Cynthia Erivo turns in a kinetic performance as a woman drawn into the heist plan simply because she, too, is ready to take charge of something in her life, and she’s available, and she’s game.

But the film they’re all in isn’t quite as uniformly good. There are a lot of pleasures to be had in watching Widows: You never quite know where it’s going, it’s stylish and moving, and it mixes McQueen’s finely tuned ability to get at truth through depicting human suffering within the kind of story — a heist caper — that otherwise can feel like lightweight wish fulfillment.

And Widows often does what you wouldn’t expect. In one notable scene, an entire conversation between a political candidate and his assistant is filmed from outside the car they’re riding in, with the camera quietly directing our attention toward the houses they pass. The effect is a stark reminder of how poverty and wealth can exist in such close proximity, juxtaposed with the indignant discussion happening inside the vehicle.

Viola Davis and Liam Neeson in Widows.
Viola Davis and Liam Neeson in Widows.
Twentieth Century Fox

But the movie also feels weirdly underwritten in spots. There are some holes in the story, particularly when it comes to Harry and Veronica’s relationship; for a woman who seems so savvy, Veronica’s credulousness seems hard to believe. And other plot points — particularly those pertaining to race — are merely gestured at when it seems as if they may have merited more attention.

These types of missteps are often excusable in more generic genre fare. But this film seems to want to say something about race, power, and class in Chicago, and sometimes it feels like it didn’t quite get its bearings before diving into the particularities of the charged setting it’s chosen.

Yet Widows is still bleakly entertaining, a movie in which each new revelation asks viewers to re-evaluate earlier parts of the film. It’s not the kind of heist flick in which the protagonists want to show up the fat cats, to embarrass people who think they’re smart; instead, it’s one where the would-be thieves have to pull off the job because it’s the only way they’ll have a future.

In the end, of course, very little will have changed. But maybe they can take back a little dignity from a world that’s all too willing to steal it away.

Widows opens in theaters on November 16.

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