Part heist thriller, part political narrative and part marital drama, director Steve McQueen’s intense and probing “Widows” could be the best Sidney Lumet movie that Lumet never made.
Evoking threads of Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Prince of the City,” “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” and others, McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) adapt Lynda La Plante’s 2002 miniseries into a richly detailed story of women forced to risk everything in a male-dominated Chicago.
Veronica Rawlings (played by Viola Davis) has what appears to be a good life: A luxury high-rise apartment, a wealth of possessions, and a seemingly loving marriage to Harry (Liam Neeson). What Veronica doesn’t know, or what she has chosen not to know, is how Harry makes his living: As a professional thief, leading a crew performing multi-million-dollar heists.
McQueen opens by juxtaposing Harry and his crew (Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Coburn Goss) in the heat of a post-heist police chase with domestic scenes with the crew’s wives: Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), silently suffering from domestic abuse; Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), with three kids and trying to keep a dress shop afloat; and Amanda (Carrie Coon), tending to a baby. They, and Veronica, soon learn that their men aren’t coming home, having been killed when a SWAT team assault led to the crew’s getaway van exploding.
Veronica soon learns something else, from crime lord-turned-politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry): Harry was stealing $2 million from Manning’s businesses, money that went up in flames in the explosion. Manning wants that money back, and gives Veronica one month to cobble together the money, or else — with Manning’s enforcer brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), monitoring her progress.
Veronica has only one way out, a key and an address left to her by Harry through their driver, Bash (Garret Dillahunt). That leads to a safe-deposit box with a notebook, with detailed plans for Harry’s next heist. The job is worth $5 million, but needs at least two other people. She contacts Linda and Alice to be her accomplices, and eventually they bring in a fourth, Belle (Cynthia Erivo).
Jamal wants the money to fund his campaign for alderman, in a district long ruled by an Irish-American family. Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall), is retiring, and his son Jack (Colin Farrell) thought his path to taking over his father’s seat was greased, until Manning’s ambitions surfaced.
McQueen presents a Chicago where every interaction has an element of the transactional. A ward preacher, Rev. Wheeler (Jon Michael Hill), dangles his endorsement in front of Jack Mulligan and Jamal Manning as a prize on which they must bid. Alice, who signs herself up for an escort website to make some cash, meets a wealthy developer (Lukas Haas) who puts romance in terms of negotiation. Belle’s friend Breechelle (Adepero Oduye) runs her own hair salon through a program the Mulligans championed, but the cost is a monthly kickback to the family.
It’s in this world of power and trade-offs that Veronica and her team must navigate. Their secret weapon, as Veronica puts it, is “nobody thinks we have the balls to pull this off.”
McQueen illustrates the breadth of the city in masterful strokes. His best move is done in a single take, showing the income disparities in the ward Jack wants to represent, as he argues political strategy on a car ride from a lower-income development where he’s campaigning to the family’s gated mansion just barely within the ward’s boundaries.
In a sharp ensemble with plenty of note-perfect performances, Davis is dominant, as she should be. Her Veronica exudes control, of her crew and her anger that selfish, careless men have put her in this predicament. Watching Davis’ eyes, as Veronica tries to calculate her way out, is as exciting as the heist and its shattering aftermath.
Opens Friday, November 16, in theaters everywhere. Rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual content/nudity. Running time: 129 minutes.