Widows is so jam-packed with so many plotlines, themes, and social commentary that it feels like it shouldn’t work at all, this should be the quintessential case of an overstuffed movie that people refer to as something that should have been an HBO miniseries instead. A heist thriller with so much going on at once really does sound like it should be the kind of ambitious project that exceeds an artists grasp. Instead, Widows is more than just “not overstuffed”, it’s phenomenal cinema from top-to-bottom, an immensely impressive achievement that, like an expert magician pulling a tablecloth off a table without disrupting any items actually on the table, manages to do the seemingly impossible so effortlessly.
Like I said, there’s a lot of characters to deal with in Widows but our primary lead is Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis), a woman who has just lost her husband, Henry Rawlings (Liam Neeson). Rawlings was a thief who, along with three other men, just died in a robbery gone wrong, one that left Henry in a large amount of debt with Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who tells Veronica to get him all the money Henry lost or else there will be gruesome consequences. Faced with no other options, Veronica decides that the only way to get all that money is by pulling off a heist, one that will require the help of Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), the widows of two of Henry’s now deceased accomplices, as well as the cash-strapped Belle (Cynthia Erivo).
Like many movies that I adore, Widows manages to pull off what seems like a total contradiction, it manages to tell the individual stories of these four women in an intimate manner while also telling a sprawling story involving rival politicians, the aforementioned Jamal Manning and the smarmy JFK-wannabe Jack Mulligan (Collin Farrell), that intends to highlight how widespread societal systems oppress and dehumanize disenfranchised populations like women and people of color. By balancing these two contrasting elements so well, writers Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen manage to convey the numerous forms prejudice manifests into in 21st century America (the story specifically takes place in Chicago in 2008) while managing to also treat those affected by said prejudice, like our four lead characters, as fully-formed human beings.
The relationship between societally ingrained prejudice and how it impacts oppressed communities and individuals therein is what provides a unifying link throughout the disparate subplots, creating a constant sense of unity throughout the piece. These two factors are depicted throughout Widows in a realistically restrained manner that can be seen in several fantastically realized scenes like one showing Jack Mulligan publicly bragging about all he’s done for citizens of color in his tenure as a politician while never letting non-white individuals on-stage with him speak. Self-proclaimed white male ally Jack Mulligan’s actions right here make it clear that he sees people of color not as humans but just as props he can use for his own wishes. Similarly, a terrifying scene between Alice and her mother, Agnieska (Jacki Weaver), shows in just a short span of time how enduring physically abusive behavior at the hands of her mother all her life has greatly impacted how Alice sees herself.
Alice’s storyline is maybe the best subplot in a movie that’s got as many riveting plotlines as Ruffles chips have ridges. This is a character that’s been reduced to a stereotype that lingers in the background in so many movies but here, Alice gets to be fully-formed and have a fascinating personality beyond just the physical abuse she suffers, one brought to life in sublime form by Elizabeth Debicki. Widows is a whole lot of things, it’s a Chinatown-esque political drama, it’s a heist movie, it’s a thriller, but as Alice’s excellently-handled subplot shows, above all else, it’s a story about four women they’re trying to regain their own sense of individuality and self-worth in the face of immense, one told through the prism of a heist thriller.
The fact that it’s a heist thriller makes Widows not just thoughtful commentary, it’s also just pure grade-A entertainment. From the first scene onward showing the doomed robbery of Henry Rawlings (brilliantly filmed from a camera placed inside their car, lending a visually claustrophobic nature to this chaotic moment), the pulsating intensity of the film is established and doesn’t let up until the credits roll. Gillian Flynn already showed her knack for making high-quality edge-of-your-seat thrillers with her work on Gone Girl and Sharp Objects and she continues her sublime track record here, particularly her track record with making villains who get under your skin but who also feel like they could have stepped straight out of reality. This is particularly true of Jamal Manning’s brother, Jatemme Manning who does all the dirty work his brother wants to rid himself of.
Jatemme Manning is a fantastic adversary brought to chilling life by Daniel Kaluuya, who gets to show off just how versatile he is as a performer with his unnerving work here. Kaluuya conveys the characters intimidating nature simply through the way he composes his body, the moment he walks into a room you begin to get a chill up your spine that won’t go away. How appropriate that a movie this great would also get a foe of similarly top-shelf quality! Kaluuya is one of the numerous great performances found in Widows, there really isn’t a dud to be found here in the cast, whether it’s in how Viola Davis handles her emotionally complex role to how Michelle Rodriguez blows away all expectations to deliver a stellar dramatic turn to how Cynthia Erivo arrives about a third of the way into the movie and proceeds to command your attention whenever she’s on-screen. Special props to Brian Tyree Henry too for delivering yet another great supporting role in a 2018 movie, he’s totally convincing in the part of an underdog politician while selling the characters darker side with a similar level of authenticity.
The cast of Widows is working under the direction of director Steve McQueen, who finds himself in starkly different genre territory compared to his 2013 Best Picture Winner 12 Years A Slave (though it is worth noting that both films are about humanizing individuals disenfranchised in specifically American institutions) but doesn’t miss a beat in lending an assured hand to the proceedings. Mixing his brilliant directing with a script that’s has Gillian Flynn in reveling in all the entertainment that can be wrung out of a heist movie and one of the best casts assembled in recent years, it’s no wonder that Widows doesn’t just avoid becoming overstuffed but also channels the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road in how well it blends entertainment and thoughtful sociopolitical commentary.