The subject of the heist broadens the scale of Widows to Wire-level proportions and prompts a city-wide consideration of the film’s Chicago setting as a political unit. A city and state whose mayors and governors frequently find themselves indicted, the corruption trickles all the way down to a South side alderman race, where Duvall’s Tom Mulligan is quitting a position he’s held a stranglehold on for decades. Jamal is running to replace him, but so is Mulligan’s son Jack (Colin Farrell), a man with a new house in the gentrifying district that also happens to contain a safe with a whole mess of cash inside. The film takes place over a heated period of the campaign, neither candidate providing much inspiration for a population being brutalized from within and without. Both Jamal and Jack have a thinly-veiled disdain for the citizens they claim to want to represent, and view this job solely as means to a personal end. There’s also the subtext that voters so nakedly taken advantage of have long abandoned high-flown ideas of democracy and have been reduced to the exact kind of transactionalist ethos as their representatives. McQueen and Flynn ask the viewer to consider how politicians get rich, or why any given politician wants the job they’re running for. They might not be a nefarious crime lord or grudging scion of a grifting dynasty, but the opportunities for sanctioned theft seem so available as to attract a less-than-altruistic sort of public servant.
Zooming in from the global perspective, the inner psychological lives of the protagonists are also on full display. For a film that implies loss in its title, this is a heist film that considers grief, even when the dead aren’t worthy of it. Harry left Veronica with not just debtors, but murderous debtors. Linda’s husband (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) embezzled money out of his wife’s dress shop. Alice was beaten by her brutish husband Florek (Jon Bernthal). None of these men are outwardly deserving of being mourned, and in many ways, Widows is another entry into the ‘women tolerating useless men’ subgenre. In other ways, however, these are men who had children with their widows, who had good moments, maybe even the majority of them, with their families. The childless and bruised Alice is the most unaffected by Florek’s absence, but Linda and Veronica are both deeply affected by their losses, even after learning the depths of how much their husbands’ actions have crippled them. Due to the hurried nature of the heist they have to pull off, the last thing they took from their wives is time to grieve, so their pain comes out at inopportune times. Veronica keeps hers on lockdown, letting it out in gasped sobs when she’s alone in her apartment, but Alice is less guarded with hers. In one of the film’s best scenes, she has an interaction with an asset who is himself a widower, and their unspoken connection briefly turns into physical attachment that is both out of nowhere and wholly understandable.
McQueen has long gotten exceptional performances out of his casts, and Widows is more of the same. Davis, Rodriguez, Debicki, and later team addition Cynthia Erivo are all credible as, first, people that don’t know what they’re doing and then as people who figure it out as they go. As the ringleader, Davis is as hard as she must be, but it’s a skin the character takes little pleasure in. Few have asked this much of Rodriguez, and it turns out she’s capable of depths far beyond what the Fast and Furious movies demand. Debicki goes through the fullest transformation, ending the film far away from the kept wife that begins it, and Erivo’s Belle is a physical dynamo. One of Widows many pleasures is watching Erivo run, a feat that McQueen knows to capture in long tracking shots.
Away from the main cast is an ensemble film, where no part is too small and a wealth of actors are operating at or near the height of their skills. Farrell, fully rehabilitated after years of being dismissed as a mere pretty face, radiates disdain for his would-be constituents, a trait he surely picked up from Duvall’s venomous portrayal. Henry, who appeared in six other 2018 films, has the carriage and charisma to warrant a film where he’s a legitimate public leader, and he’s also possessed with the requisite intimidation factor to loom over a figure as titanic as Davis. Kaluuya practically steals the film as Jatemme, anchoring two scenes that showcase him as a domineering psychopath. He’s been credibly compared to Heath Ledger’s Joker in this role, and the similarity is very much there. In smaller roles, Coon plays a pregnant widow who must turn down Veronica’s offer, Jacki Weaver plays Alice’s manipulative mother, Garrett Dillahunt plays the Rawlings’ loyal driver, and Adepero Oduye wows as a friend of Belle’s caught in a scheme of the Mulligans’ making.
When he’s not prompting his cast towards greatness, McQueen is creating a heist film that looks like few, if any, others. With longtime collaborator Sean Bobbit as cinematographer, McQueen crafts several notable long takes and tracking shots whose purpose slowly reveals itself. Ostentatious oners increasingly feel like a petty game of director one-ups-man-ship, but they serve a real thematic purpose here. McQueen, whose incredible one-shot in Hunger predates the John Wick’s and True Detective’s of the world, lets scenes containing them breathe as the characters take in a fresh realization, grapple with it, and adjust accordingly. The most talked-about one lasts as long as a car ride between one of Jack’s campaign stops and his home, a distance that is both shockingly short and thematically wide enough to drive any number of thinkpieces through.
What keeps Widows just out of the Heat stratosphere are some of Flynn’s pulpy shortcuts that were also present in her most famous work, Gone Girl. Widows contains some scenes and inclusions of characters that work for the shock of the moment or as a looming threat, but don’t make much sense within the world itself. There’s an omnipresent acknowledgement that everyone’s a criminal, a sense that works for the film but again, is hard to square in the contemporary world the film exists in. Why are so many officials at a known thief’s funeral? How is it that Jamal can be a well-known mobster with a murderous brother and run for office? For that matter, as welcome as a presence that Belle is, she is otherwise unconnected to the three widows and joins their group all too willingly. Widows invites this kind of criticism with a serious tone that plainly wants to say something about the world we live in, and it requires no small amount of hand-waving to fully get on its wavelength.
With his fourth film, McQueen’s amazing track record continues with this wide-release attempt to reach a broader audience. He demonstrates that he can bring his brand of cinematic thoughtfulness to whatever branch of film that he wants to. Tellingly, Widows views money in the same way an auteur might. Here, a stack of cash is freedom from exploitative interests who only see people as dollars to be extracted. While it generated less stacks than everyone presumably planned, it hopefully piled up enough to grant McQueen the freedom to keep making great cinema like this. A-