Harry Rawlings, a highly skilled thief, has planned a heist against the Chicago crime boss Jamal Manning. Helping him are three partners: Carlos, Florek, and Jimmy. Things take an unfortunate turn when the four of them perish in an explosion during a shootout with the police. Veronica Rawlings, the widow of Harry, is now being threatened by Jamal. As the wife of Harry, she must repay him the two-million dollars lost in the botched heist. As it turns out, Jamal needs this money to finance an electoral campaign for alderman of a South Side precinct. His opponent is Jack Mulligan, the son of the incumbent alderman, Tom Mulligan. As luck would have it, Veronica has found the notebook of her deceased husband, Harry. It contains a detailed plan of what was to be his next heist. Realizing she is running out of time, Veronica bands together with the other recently-widowed woman, determined to appease the powerful crime boss.
The London-born Steve McQueen had proven his aptitude as a director as early as his inaugural film, Hunger. After that, he would direct Shame, a film about a man with crippling sex addiction. In 2013, he rose to a completely new level of success when he made 12 Years a Slave, a film based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup. 12 Years a Slave would go on to win “Picture of the Year” at the Academy Awards ceremony in 2014, and is considered one of the best films of the 2010s. Within these three films, he had proven to be quite the dynamic director, discussing the horrors of slavery after exploring the nuances of sex addiction. This trend continues with his adaptation of Lynda La Plante’s Widows, a well-known British crime drama that ran from 1983 to 1985.
While the original show was set in London, Mr. McQueen’s adaptation translates the basic plot to 2010s Chicago. It boasts an all-star cast, with Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, and Elizabeth Debicki playing the eponymous widows. While the original four widows consisted of three white women and one black woman, this adaptation is a more racially and culturally diverse group.
It is when the full scope of the conflict is revealed that you begin to appreciate just how many moving parts this film has. Jamal isn’t just a one-note crime boss, he’s also attempting to run for a political office. This adds an extra layer of intrigue as the protagonists have to support Jack Mulligan’s campaign to the best of their ability, dealing with the surprising momentum Jamal’s own is getting. In fact, due to having to introduce a plethora of plot threads, the film takes quite a long time before the heist occurs.
It may sound as though Widows has serious pacing issues, the reality is that the initially slow pacing does an excellent job telling the audience exactly what is at stake. There is no room for failure. If they do nothing, Jamal will hunt the widows down. All in all, it’s not a good situation for them. Either they help a corrupt politician obtain power or they put themselves and their families at risk. This means fleeing the city isn’t an option either. The first two acts and a significant portion of the third perfectly outline just how bad things are. This is helped immensely by Viola Davis’s excellent performance. She really sells the sheer determination of her character; Veronica will find some way out of her predicament – no matter how faint that glimmer of hope may be. What I like about how Veronica planned the heist is that she accounted for every possibly. She has her fellow widows practice carrying heavy bags, ensuring that one of them could carry an extra one in case any of them were disabled in action.
After putting all the pieces in place, I can safely say the payoff is worth it. There is an awe-inspiring amount of plot twists thrown towards the viewers within the third act. The greatest moment of the entire film is when Veronica hears her dog barking exactly as he would while greeting Harry. It turns out Harry is indeed alive and well. He killed his own crew so he could fake his death, leaving Veronica holding the bill for the money he stole. It casts the conflict in a whole new light. Suddenly, Jamal, the man who had been the primary driving force behind the story’s conflict, is nothing more than a victim of Harry’s twisted schemes, though still enough of a threat that the protagonists need to take seriously. This development retroactively makes having cast Liam Neeson in the role a brilliant move. His characters were often deeply flawed, yet had many noble traits and viewers expected the same to be true of Harry Rawlings. The reality is that he has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, being a cowardly, avaricious murderer.
One minor touch I like is that the politician running against Jamal, while having quite the checkered past rife with corruption, is shown to have a genuine desire to improve the community. In the spirit of the 2010s satire scene, I was expecting Jack to reveal that he was just saying what the people wanted to hear to win the election when it turns out there’s more to him than that. His greatest moment is when he calls out his own father for his racist, corrupt nature, punctuating his point by firing the campaign manager who had been with the family for thirty years. For that matter, Jamal himself, while an unrepentant criminal, is shown to care about his community as well, often condemning the actions of his sociopathic enforcer and brother, Jatemme.
The heist itself is an amazingly well-done sequence. As Veronica predicted, things don’t go off without a hitch. Tom Mulligan catches the widows in the act and injures one of them, though he is thankfully gunned down for his troubles. Jatemme double-crosses the widows, though he too is taken out of commission. Harry attempts to steal the money from Veronica, but she manages to kill him first, effectively framing him for the killing of Tom Mulligan. It’s a classic case of dramatic irony that also serves as a way to darkly bookend the plot; the film begins with Veronica grieving over her husband and the final moments see her killing her husband. This juxtaposition coupled with an animal recognizing their master who is thought dead seem very reminiscent of a classic forties film |– The Third Man| – almost coming across as a 2010s reinterpretation of that work. There were many bumps along the way, but the main characters well and truly earned the triumphant note on which the film ends. So many things go wrong, yet they’re able to adapt to the new circumstances and come out on top.
Whether you’re familiar with Steve McQueen’s filmography or not, I can recommend watching Widows. I remarked that Steve McQueen covered a lot of stylistic ground within the span of his first three films. I mention this because Widows manages to cover a large variety of topics within a single narrative. In the hands of a less skilled director, the result would be an incoherent mess. In Widows, the various plot thread seamlessly bleed into one another, and only rarely do any of the resolutions feel rushed. It does take some time before this film’s true value shines, but when it does, you’ll be glad you stuck with it to the end.