Oscar-winning British director Steve McQueen returns after a 5-year hiatus in what is perhaps an unpredictable move, delivering what appears to be a fairly bog-standard heist film starring Liam Neeson and Michelle Rodriguez. For those not paying attention before going into this, you might well expect something that looks a lot like another entry in the Taken-franchise. However, delving any deeper than surface level into Widows reveals a complex and beautifully layered film that is every part as exciting and nerve-wracking as one of those sorts of movies… but for very different reasons indeed.
Widows in fact features an amazingly stacked cast of talent, with Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Colin Farrell, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Brian Tyree Henry, Cynthia Erivo and Robert Duvall joining the as-previously-mentioned Neeson and Rodriguez. The film has a wonderful quality about it, where you could follow any one group of these characters and have a compelling narrative – we just happen to be following the story of these women who have just lost their criminal husbands in a heist gone wrong and have to pay back the debt they left behind. Despite this, the standout performance in the film for me came from Daniel Kaluuya, who plays the psychopathic Jatemme Manning, brother to campaign runner Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). In the short number of scenes he is in, Kaluuya absolutely steals the show; equal parts captivating and haunting, proving he’s come a long ways since playing Posh Kenneth in Skins.
These small, bit part narratives add a lot to the city of Chicago where the film is set. The city feels alive, breathing shallow tense breaths as the story unfolds and explores its different areas. There is a particular moment where a car carrying campaign front-runner Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) moves from a rundown, urban area of the city to just down the road, which is affluent and much better off. McQueen here does something understatedly smart, and does not follow Farrell into the car and instead, leaves the camera on the hood of the flashy, chauffeur driven car. Reflected in the hood, and just to the sides of the frame, the environment gradually changes before our eyes – and all that can be heard is Farrell saying something far different to the motivational speech he gave to the predominantly black residents of the urban area they just left.
Back to the primary narrative however, and the trio of Davis, Debicki and Rodriguez are outstanding throughout, particularly Debicki who shines as the trashy yet street smart member of the group. The three are without choice, they must follow in the footsteps of their husbands if they want to survive and reclaim their lives – but they are constantly unsure, wary of the job at hand. They never really once look to be completely in control, and the film never pretends that they are. They do not magically transform from their old lives, they just adopt the roles, and constantly seem on edge. Later joined by a fourth in babysitter turned getaway driver Belle (Cynthia Erivo), the heist they have to pull off by the end never looks like it will one-hundred percent go their way, which adds a much needed tension to a genre that so regularly makes everything seem easy.
Flynn and McQueen have achieved something quite remarkable with Widows, with the pair proving that the heist film has some life left in it yet if done properly.