'Widows,' directed by Steve McQueen, is an excellent crime thriller — but it's so much more than that

Although “Widows” presents itself as an action movie, its creative team boasts both Oscar and arthouse credentials. And it shows.
Image: Widows
Viola Davis and Cynthia Erivo are terrific in Twentieth Century Fox's "Widows."Merrick Morton / Twentieth Century Fox
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By Jenni Miller

The elevator pitch for “Widows” writes itself: A heist goes horribly awry, and the grieving widows take it upon themselves to pull off their partners’ last heist. On paper, it sounds like the standard shallowly feminist action films Hollywood occasionally uses to placate one of its underserved audiences.

To be sure, these movies make a ton of money, but they generally aren’t very good. Liking them feels like an obligation to me. As a straight white woman in her forties, I can only speak to my experience, but I would imagine it’s even more frustrating for, well, anyone who isn’t a white heterosexual cisgender man.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the gorgeous trappings of a movie like “Ocean’s Eight,” even if it is just a gender-flipped version of a male-driven franchise. I also loved “Salt,” but that might as well take place on an alien planet. There are only so many sexy ladies wielding guns in each hand that I can get worked up about, you know?

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the gorgeous trappings of a movie like “Ocean’s Eight,” even if it is just a gender-flipped version of a male-driven franchise.

Surprisingly — and luckily — “Widows” is much more than its synopsis. The women of “Widows” aren’t just ex-wives or decoys or a lone cool girl among the guys. They’re carefully constructed characters with wildly disparate backgrounds, played by a powerhouse ensemble comprised of Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo. Their former partners’ criminal pasts are inextricably intertwined with a local race for the position of Alderman of Chicago’s 18th Ward, which is its own parallel plot about redistricting and positioning old-guard Chicago politicians (Colin Ferrell and Robert Duvall) against a local community leader (Brian Tyree Henry). It is complicated but not convoluted, and somehow even makes local politics thrilling.

To the credit of both the cast and writers, nothing about “Widows” feels medicinal or self-righteous, even when Davis quips, “I never thought I’d marry a white man… or a criminal.” That's just her character’s truth, just as Debicki’s character Alice can use her beauty to her advantage as a sugar baby and be equally annoyed when men only deign to talk to her because of that beauty.

Indeed, despite presenting itself as an action movie, at least in the trailers, “Widows” was created by a team that boasts both Oscar and arthouse credentials. Even before director/co-writer Steve McQueen’s film “12 Years a Slave” snagged Best Picture in 2014, he was adored in critical circles for his films “Hunger” and “Shame.” Meanwhile Gillian Flynn, who wrote the screenplay with McQueen, has become a household name thanks to bestselling thrillers featuring a series of female protagonists who can be generously characterized as unlikeable. It turns out that if you care about great characters doing fascinating things, it’s not hard to represent that on film. (The movie is based on a 1983 ITV series of the same name.)

As Davis declares in the trailer, “The best thing we have going for us is being who we are… because no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.” The trailer, as trailers do, emphasizes such proclamations, and yes, when she delivered this line in the theater it made me want to pump my fist. But there are so many layers to “who are are” that it’s dizzying. Underneath the heist plot, the film paints a much more layered portrait of Chicago, where class, race, gender, age and politics rub up against each other in complicated ways. Sometimes it’s blunt in its depiction of racism and hypocrisy, but it can also be surprisingly subtle. A glance, an insulting toss of cash onto a coffee table, or even what one character is listening to on the radio all becoming meaningful indications of a larger theme in the skilled hands of McQueen and his team.

Underneath the heist plot, the film paints a much more layered portrait of Chicago, where class, race, gender, age and politics rub up against each other in complicated ways.

Altogether, these efforts pay off; the audience goers around me gasped, teared up and cheered at such an artfully composed, gorgeously shot 35mm film presented for mainstream audiences. (The cinematographer is Sean Bobbitt, who worked on both “Hunger” and “Shame” with McQueen.) There are no accidents here, starting with the stark white bedding that Liam Neeson and Viola Davis kiss against in the very first scene. I could go on, but really the less you know about “Widows,” both the movie and the original TV show, the more you’ll enjoy it.

Ultimately “Widows” is terrific on its face as a crime thriller. It’s violent, it’s kinetic and it’s beyond watchable. But if you want to pay a bit more attention — and you don’t have to, you can just enjoy it — there’s so much more happening under the surface.