Say what you will about Steve McQueen’s films (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave) — I can say plenty — you’ll agree that they’re reliably punishing, that McQueen is bent on driving home the mortification of his characters’ flesh via starvation, addiction, or enslavement. The big news out of the Toronto International Film Festival, where McQueen’s new film, Widows, premiered, is that he has become unreliable. The movie, believe it or not, gives pleasure. It’s a stark, violent, cynical but thoroughly entertaining caper picture.
There is degradation, of course, principally to the women who end up striking back, making this the movie that Oceans Eight should have been. (Gillian Flynn is McQueen’s co-writer.) Viola Davis plays Veronica Rawlings, a Chicago teachers’ union executive who happens to be married to a very successful criminal named Harry (Liam Neeson). The van belonging to Harry and his gang gets blown up in the sensational first sequence, but images of the couples’ lovemaking — and the tragic loss of their son — recur throughout the film. Veronica has a reason not to think so fondly of Harry, though. The $2 million that blew up with the van came from the crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who shows up at her apartment, throttles her little dog, and gives her a month to pay him back — after which she’ll be visited by Jamal’s right-hand psycho, Jatemme Manning (Daniel Kaluuya), who enjoys the execution part of his job way too much. But there is hope. When Harry’s safe-deposit box yields plans for a $3 million robbery and incriminating (nekkid) pictures of a well-known politician, she decides to enlist the widows of Harry’s gang for her own: Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), whose store has just been dismantled by creditors; Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), who might be forced to market herself to wealthy gentleman; and Amanda (Carrie Coon), who’s always clutching her brand-new baby.
McQueen wouldn’t do a mere genre movie, of course. Widows has a sprawling political subplot in which the crime boss Manning runs for alderman against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the son of an elderly but still powerful Chicago pol (Robert Duvall). Manning has a shot because the borders of the ward have been redrawn, which means the younger Mulligan has to venture into black neighborhoods. Not many caper pictures have shots like the one in which the camera is positioned on the outside of Mulligan’s limo, filming not him and a fellow passenger as they talk strategy but the neighborhood as houses go from small and rundown to big and spaced apart. Points for ambition, anyway.
There’s enough in Widows to have easily filled up a six- or eight- or ten-hour HBO or Showtime or Netflix or Amazon series, but I’m bound to say I like that it’s all packed into one two-hour crowd-pleaser in which all the strands come together, the twists make audiences gasp, and there are multiple satisfying payoffs. The cast is mostly a treat, although Colin Farrell shouldn’t do accents and Jacki Weaver (as Debicki’s overbearing, over-laquered mom) needed to be taken down a peg or six. But Kaluuya gets a villain that’s worthy of him — brisk and businesslike but always with a spare moment or two to torture some unfortunate. As for Duvall, I imagine him asking McQueen, “Who is this guy you want me to play?” and McQueen saying, “He’s a screaming asshole,” and Duvall saying, “I can do that.” He can do that.
As for the widows, Davis suffers nobly before transforming herself into a badass and showing off a pair of impressively muscled arms. Rodriguez gets to play someone a little less truculent than her usual characters, and it’s good to see her portray indecision — it makes her triumphs more satisfying. Debicki is a joy. Her scenes with Lukas Haas as a reasonably kind sugar daddy make you want to scream at the imbalance: She towers over him (she towers over everyone) but given that her body is a rental, he has all the power. A late addition to the gang is the take-no-prisoners British singer Cynthia Erivo, her tight curls bleached, her presence so formidable that she wins a staring contest with Viola Davis.
Spoiler alert: The dog is okay and Davis’s Veronica carries the little guy around with her everywhere. In the throttling shot it actually looks like a robot dog, because you’re allowed to put actresses through hell onscreen but God forbid you harm a hair on a dog’s head.