Review: Widows transcends the conventional caper movie

Widows transcends the conventional caper movie and feels more like a full season of The Wire condensed into one expertly-made film. Though you could compare it to something like Heat, it goes beyond that with its firm attention on intersections of American life. Through the eyes of its female leads, we see the consequences women face when they become disposable pawns in power games played by weak, corrupt men.

Gillian Flynn’s dark, unsentimental brand of feminism is well-matched with the absolute precision of director and co-writer Steve McQueen. Not a moment in this film is wasted, layering dense characterization and plot momentum into the smallest of glances or scraps of dialogue. After the more formal 12 Years a Slave, Widows feels like the same degree of scale but with a return to the grittier, unadorned storytelling that made 2008’s Hunger such a beast of a debut.

The story seems almost contained at first. After a group of professional thieves is killed in a police standoff gone wrong, their spouses are left holding the proverbial bag. All are women that were, for one reason or another, fully dependent on the men in their lives. Without them, each has to come to terms with what it means to go it alone, stepping out of men’s shadows (and hands). To fend off the ex-gangster their spouses robbed, they are forced to plan and execute a daring robbery while reckoning with their losses, the damage and secrets they’re left with, and each other.

Widows is a film made up of tense, occasionally harrowing, conversations between people negotiating their power over each other. Every actor in this stacked cast brings their absolute best, though the show belongs to Viola Davis. Supporting her is an ensemble of actresses doing exemplary work, particularly Michelle Rodriguez who rarely gets opportunities to do a role like this one. Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo are poised to break huge along with Brian Tyree Henry. The other men (Liam Neeson, Robert Duvall, Lukas Haas, and Daniel Kaluuya, to name some) are no slouches, each conveying a deep tension between depravity and desire.

As the plot twists and turns and the crime she is planning becomes ever more personal, Davis’s Veronica Rawlings is the prism through which the audience experiences the film’s unexpectedly deep explorations of politics, sex, class, race, and gender. Every character in the film has a perspective and what units them all is an (often unspoken) desire for a better life. Even men who do great harm echo each other in their attempts to go beyond their criminal pasts, no matter who they have to hurt to do so. This complexity is always there at the edges of the frame, humanizing even the most unforgivable characters.

This is a film that will seem like straightforward crime drama until the intensity of its political perspective emerges in several key scenes. Only occasionally in your face, the themes of Widows are often conveyed visually. For example, a car ride that takes us from the poor part of a rezoned Chicago neighborhood to the rich part -- all done in one shot with the camera on the car so we can see that almost unbelievable transition from poverty to privilege. All the while, Colin Farrell’s Jack Mulligan is ranting about the nepotism that put him in a position of power and corruption that he never wanted. It’s an amazingly on-point juxtaposition, the kind that makes guys like McQueen so electric behind the camera.

Another point that separates Widows from type is that it portrays the criminal as personal. Many similar films romanticize bank robbers and thieves, showing us a shadowy world of hard men with rigid codes and a seductive kind of honor. Flynn and McQueen deconstruct that through the four women, addressing their need to “be like men” but openly questioning what value that really has and how far it needs to go before they’re making the same mistakes. Where the story leaves Veronica and Alice underlines this point, again providing the film with an ethos on which to hang its tense dialogue and explosive violence.

Widows is a thrilling and intense crime film that deserves a spot among the greats of the genre. Unapologetically singular and adult in a landscape suffused with intertextual kids’ movies, Widows reminds us why it’s so vital to have films like it in our cinematic diet.