The following review is part of our coverage of the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
When reduced to a logline, Widows sounds almost gimmicky: Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen, famous for tackling weighty topics like hunger strikes and slavery with serious, ponderous pictures, takes on the comparatively bubbly heist genre.
This isn’t to say that McQueen diving into an explosion-ridden romp would be a bad thing, or a debasement of his considerable skills. If he actually was attempting a pure action film, it would probably make for a fun night at the movies. Widows, however, is not that film. It’s a little deeper and meatier, laced with moral quandaries and weighted with higher stakes than most robbing rapscallions face in heist schemes. It also happens to be a complete blast.
Transplanting the ‘80s British miniseries of the same name to the big screen and modern-day Chicago, Widows is the story of four wildly different women who are united when three of their husbands die in a botched robbery — and are forced to take over where their late spouses left off.
Widows opens with a scene of domestic bliss, as Veronica (Viola Davis) and her husband Rawlins (Liam Neeson) share some sweet, moony-eyed kisses in the bed of their well-appointed Chicago condo. Mid nip, we’re tossed into a screeching car crash and shootout as Rawlins and his crew race through the streets, careening toward their ugly ends. The four women left behind by this disaster are thrown into chaos just as suddenly, left with unexpected debts and uncertain futures. With no clear or feasible alternatives, Veronica recruits her fellow widows and convinces them to help her carry out the plans for one last job that Rawlins left behind. And as if becoming self-taught master criminals overnight wasn’t enough of a challenge, a local legacy political candidate (Colin Farrell) and his main rival both have other plans for the money — and for anyone who comes after it.
The formidable cast absolutely shines thanks to the significant riches they’ve been given to work with. Davis is the clear star of the show here, evoking casual confidence whether she’s armed with a gun or Veronica’s tiny pet dog, barely betraying the gutting emotional turmoil bubbling below her cool surface. It’s an absolute crime that she hasn’t been given more opportunities like this in the past. But her supporting cast does an admirable job of keeping up with her.
Michelle Rodriguez, who has spent the bulk of her career kicking ass, is completely believable as a somewhat beleaguered mother who’s reluctant to get involved. Elizabeth Debicki is in far more familiar territory as a tragically beautiful woman trapped in a seedy prison only partially of her own making, but she’s so good at playing that type that it’s really no hardship to see her latest variation on the theme. Cynthia Erivo continues to prove her star power as a gig economy babysitter and hairdresser who joins the group when they need a fourth hand. And Farrell chews some Farrell-esque scenery as a slimy, entitled trust fund kid creeping toward institutional power.
It’s all deliciously fun and deliriously devious, but Widows isn’t just an exercise in sheer escapism. Sure, the dialogue is smart and razor-sharp (thanks to a fantastically clever script by McQueen and Gone Girl novelist Gillian Flynn), the action is cleverly paced, and the payoffs ridiculously satisfying. Between the political machinations that creep closer to our heroines and the often tragic backstories that start to creep into their motives and their mission, though, Widows is fraught with a level of serious tension that rarely grounds even the great robbery capers. It is both a McQueen drama and a McQueen experiment, and the balance between the two is almost flawless.
Each individual element is great in its own right. As an ensemble action/comedy, it’s playful and wry. As drama that wades deep into the complex morality of crime and politics and the ways in which they intersect, it’s casually incisive and compelling (in that clever way that British TV series and, occasionally, the American remakes of them, do so well). It’s even fairly effective as a collection of miniature character studies. All put together, though, it becomes something even more remarkable, a true cinematic gem that can make you gasp and cheer in the moment — and still pondering it long after you’ve left the theater.
If you were compelled to try to explain Widows in one line, it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that McQueen is attempting a heist film. But you might be able to get away with saying that he’s elevated the genre.