“Widows,” a sprawling crime drama from director Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”), begins with a sharp, fragmented sequence that ends with the deaths of four Chicago men and the creation of the title characters. The grieving women’s husbands were criminals, killed mid-heist in an explosion that took the cash with it, and the widows must now contend with the aftermath — namely, the crime boss whose $2 million was stolen wants it back. He doesn’t even care that it got blown up, that’s how unreasonable he is.
As luck would have it, the thieves’ ringleader, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), left behind a notebook with detailed plans for their next heist. His widow, Veronica (Viola Davis), need only recruit a few accomplices and carry it out. The crime boss, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a local businessman who’s running for alderman, threatened only Veronica and doesn’t even know who Harry’s collaborators were. But the collaborators’ widows don’t know that, and Veronica lets them believe that replacing the $2 million is their problem, too.
Two of the other three widows are in desperate financial straits with their husbands gone. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) has lost her clothing store because it turns out her deadbeat spouse gave it to a loan shark. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), seen in flashback with a black eye administered by her abusive husband (Jon Bernthal), has no means of support and turns to high-end escorting. The last widow, Amanda (Carrie Coon), a new mother, is doing OK and wants no part in the other three’s shenanigans, so the fourth slot on the heist team is filled by Linda’s babysitter, Belle (Cynthia Erivo), who works at a hair salon that’s owned by the mob.
So: a heist. That’s plenty to build a movie around, but there’s actually a lot more going on here. That up-and-coming criminal who’s running for alderman is running against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), part of a political dynasty that includes the current alderman, his father, Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall). In classic Chicago style, the Mulligans are corrupt, nepotistic, and not a little racist, used to winning elections by whatever means necessary. Jamal Manning wants to overthrow them and start his own corrupt, nepotistic political dynasty, which I suppose is the American dream. The campaign is connected to the heists in ways I won’t reveal.
McQueen, who co-wrote the screenplay with Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) as an adaptation of Lynda La Plante’s 1983 British miniseries, has pulled off a nifty trick. “Widows” is a cool heist caper with delightful surprises and reversals. (One fun angle: The notebooks and blueprints give detailed instructions on how to get past security and break into the vault … but they don’t indicate where the vault is. A bank? Somebody’s house? The women have to figure it out.) But it’s also a sober drama about women gaining their independence and autonomy, and about the white patriarchy struggling to maintain control of the world while women and people of color try to snatch it away. The widows have nothing in common other than poor taste in husbands, and they don’t immediately work well together. Veronica takes the lead, giving Linda and Alice assignments that she expects them to fulfill without any hand-holding, forcing them to be more resourceful and pragmatic than they realized they were capable of. The women bond over their shared grief and, like their sisters in “Ocean’s Eight,” can count on being ignored or underestimated to help them achieve their goals.
If this were purely a heist film with no subtext or side plots, it would be a breezy 100 minutes long. Instead it’s a hefty 129 minutes, taking its time with the characters, showing us their lives, using snippets of flashbacks to reveal how they interacted with their late husbands. It feels more fleshed-out, more real-world weighty than your standard popcorn caper, and it’s a rush seeing these women take matters into their own felonious hands.
B+ (2 hrs., 9 min.; )