Our husbands aren't coming back. We're on our own.
UK Filmic Forays readers of a certain age will remember Widows, the hard-boiled '80s TV crime drama that Lynda La Plante adapted from her own novel. Director Steve McQueen certainly recalls it; those gutsy female leads remained with him for three decades, so that this new version of the story has become his surprising follow-up to 12 Years a Slave. He shrewdly brought Gone Girl/Sharp Objects writer Gillian Flynn on board too, to create the screenplay. Their collaboration - like you might have anticipated - has forged a riveting crime thriller with added depth and contemporary relevance.
The big-screen Widows relocates to modern-day Chicago and plunges us straight into the blood and bullets of a heist gone terribly wrong. It's one from which none of the thieves will survive. Veronica Rawlings, wife of the criminal group's leader, is still reeling from the loss of her husband (a cameoing Liam Neeson), when she discovers a second harsh truth. The robbers have stolen from local gangster-turned-politician Jamal Manning, and he's demanding that the debt be paid in full by those they left behind. Fast running out of time, Veronica (Viola Davis) enlists the aid of two more women widowed by the heist and pitches a daring idea - they will work through the plans for the next robbery their late husbands had lined up and carry it out themselves.
Widows is a heist movie the way HBO's The Wire was a crime drama, i.e. it's that and vastly more. The genius begins with Flynn's screen-writing - she tells the story of a complex heist with smart economy, while connecting the women's narrative to that of warring local politicians. Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell play two generations of a mayoral dynasty, whose reign is being challenged by the widows' nemesis Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Veronica and co are snared somewhere in between. The minor miracle is that all these characters and their stories have room to expand, achieving a degree of complexity within the tightly plotted framework.
Add to that McQueen's hold on the story - constantly challenging our expectations, with every shot crafted to deepen appreciation of character and location. Under his steely gaze Chicago itself comes into sharp focus with its ethnic and financial divides. But he also knows how to tell a good crime story, making the most of all the surprises in Flynn's devious script. And he lets the camera linger on the faces of his actors, capturing every flicker of emotion as events push towards their crisis.
There are no off-note performances here, just excellent ones. Eighty-eight-year-old Robert Duvall has power and ferocity as veteran politician Tom Mulligan, while Daniel Kaluuya (so amiable in Get Out) is properly scary as Jamal's psychopathic brother.
Farrell and Henry impress too, but as with the '80s TV show, this is all about the women. Davis, who carved out that Best Supporting Oscar in Fences, is a powerhouse here as the formidable Veronica. She's hurting, scared and vulnerable, but she also radiates strength as the widows' rallying point. Michelle Rodriguez tempers her usual toughness as the one mother in the group, while Cynthia Erivo (sensational in Bad Times at the El Royale) has bags of attitude as the one non-widow enlisted to help them. And rounding out the team is The Night Manager's Elizabeth Debicki, whose journey as serial-victim Alice is perhaps the most striking of the movie. Watching these gals pick up where their husbands left off is nothing short of enthralling.
As a heist story Widows doesn't let down - the central set-piece is as taut (fuelled by Hans Zimmer's score) as you might hope. But it's also a fascinating study of social conflict along lines of gender, race and economics. And at its heart is the bond of necessity between these four desperate, disparate female anti-heroes. They're not good-girls, but you'll come to see things from their viewpoint, and by the end you'll be rooting for them every hard-fought, potentially disastrous step of the way.
Gut Reaction: Locked in from the heart-pounding opening scenes, then regularly blind-sided - by unexpected plot curves and great moments of performances.
Where Are the Women?: See the film's title. Also its amazing writer. And look out for Jacki Weaver's amazing cameo as Alice's mother.
Ed's Verdict: 9/10. Intelligent multi-layered movie-making that demands to be seen again. The lesson? That with the right people doing it, a riveting genre flick and a work of art can be one and the same thing.