Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years a Slave and Shame, may seem like an odd match with Gillian Flynn, the writer of Gone Girl. Her pulpy plot lines don't scream for McQueen's often grim and somber character studies. However, this unlikely pairing yields a fresh thriller for adults that at once indulges in the genre and tries to rise above it.
Veronica, a fierce Viola Davis, loses her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) at the film's opening. We see the robbery that go awry and leaves him and several other men dead. Veronica, in her bougie high-rise apartment with her white fluffy dog, doesn't scream criminal mastermind. Her husband was and his failed robbery leaves a serious debt behind. When the men whose money he stole come and threaten her unless she gets the money back, she decides to execute a plan in Harry's notebook. The plan involves a $5 million payload stashed in a safe room. She owes $2 million to the the men who Harry stole from and plans on the rests ensuring her way to a new life. The same motivation drives the team of women she assembles who also lost their men in the botched job.
All the women have been treated poorly by their men. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) was physically abused by her husband and now her mother (Jacki Weaver). Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) was left without her store and livlihood thanks to her husband's gambling debts. However, Amanda (Carrie Coon) stays far away from the plan even though she is left with a newborn. Her reasons provide one of the films biggest twists. This leaves an opening filled by Linda's babysitter. Belle (Cynthia Erivo) hustles all the time to support her family and sees an opportunity to change her life by joining the crew.
McQueen is never one to shy away from the misery of life. He makes a thriller that reluctantly offers thrills and often focuses on the emotional toll these women face from the actions of the retched men they loved. This duality is best when focused on Veronica. Davis is a commanding force in the film and she creates a rich portrait of a woman with few options, dealing with grief and anger and love all at the same time.
Widows uses a subplot involving a political race, between Irish-American Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and African-American crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), to comment on race and class in addition to the gender roles the heist plot line explores. Some of this works well but it occasionally slows the film down. Jamal's enforcer brother is played by Daniel Kaluuya, who gives a chilling performance that proves his star-making acting in Get Out was no joke.
While the heist itself isn't particularly savory, say as in the Oceans flicks, it doesn't need to be. Widows works best as a tale of survival, one packed with rich emotions and complicated people. The heist is thrilling but primarily because we know it means to these women. Those looking for fun may be turned off by the sad nature of the film but make no mistake, Widows is a winner.