Widows review – Steve McQueen's brutal heist thriller delivers the swag

Viola Davis leads a bereaved crew into the urban underworld in this stylish old-fashioned crime caper

Viola Davis’s contemptuous stare has the force of a double-barrelled shotgun in this blistering thriller from Steve McQueen. Rocking a sleek belted trenchcoat rather than conventional widow’s weeds, Davis leads a blue-chip cast in McQueen’s cracking remake of Lynda La Plante’s Thatcher-era Brit TV drama about bereaved women taking over a planned robbery from their criminal menfolk after they are killed on an abortive job. (The action is relocated from London to Chicago, and I badly need McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn to do a new version of Turtle’s Progress set in Miami.)

It’s a violent heist movie, a twisty neo-noir and an old-school municipal graft drama with something of Robert Rossen’s 1949 picture All the King’s Men. It has the urban cynicism and male toxicity we saw in McQueen’s sex addiction nightmare Shame but his signature alienated long takes are in evidence just once in Widows, when a crooked mayoral candidate climbs into his official car, raging about the latest indignity, and McQueen keeps the fixed shot positioned outside the vehicle, looking back at the darkened windshield as if eavesdropping on the man’s arrogance.

Widows exerts a cold-sweat grip. It is viciously contemporary, permafrosted with cynicism and a stylishness that motors it over plot points of implausibility on which lesser directors might just spin their wheels. Yet there’s also something engagingly old-fashioned about it. I never thought I’d see a movie set in 2018 where a clue is to be found by picking up a discarded matchbook with a certain racy establishment’s logo and address – a once time-honoured screenwriting standby.

Davis plays Veronica, a retired teacher and union delegate who is married to Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) a serious career criminal. Veronica, a putative civilian, both knows and does not know what her husband does for a living. But she is forced out of denial when the news comes through that Harry has been killed, along with his gang, in the course of stealing millions of dollars from rival mobster Jatemme Manning – a very scary performance by Daniel Kaluuya – brother of Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), now laundering his assets and reputation by running for alderman.

His opponent is the blandly entitled Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), whose ornery, racist old dad Tom (Robert Duvall), the outgoing alderman, has run the place like a medieval fiefdom. Now Jamal figures Veronica knows where his money is and demands it back – and Veronica thinks she can get it by pulling off a job that Henry had already planned in detail, by using his departed crew’s grieving (or not-so-grieving) partners and their friends. These are the women who for years had to endure the guys’ violence, abuse or simple condescension: Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), Amanda (Carrie Coon) and Belle (Cynthia Erivo) – all formidably good. The unlikely nature of the situation is a plus. As Veronica tells them: “No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off!”

There is a very amusing scene in which Alice has to buy a getaway van that is in fact not so far from the van-buying scene in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean Eleven, but the Widows are nothing like the cast of that caper or indeed Ocean’s 8. This one is (mostly) deadly serious. It is a film with a sledgehammer punch.

  • Widows is released on Tuesday.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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