Steve McQueen’s Masterful Thriller ‘Widows’ Delivers a Powerful Cocktail of Crime and Drama

It must be said from the start, “Widows” is one of the great modern crime dramas. As a film it works on multiple levels, never losing its substance or human dimensions. Yet at the same time it is a riveting tale of corruption, violence and greed. Director Steve McQueen once again demonstrates the versatility of his talent, trying out a new and classic genre but with his own, unique voice. His elegant and fierce cinema has plunged into the depths of human experience and despair. “Widows” is just as deep, but with the adrenaline rush of a superb caper.

One night a group of thieves led by Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) are carrying out a major heist in Chicago when they get chased by the police. A shootout results in a fiery climax, apparently killing Rawlings and his crew. Rawlings’s widow, Veronica (Viola Davis), is now left with his unfinished business, including a notebook with plans for a planned, major robbery. But it turns out Harry’s last heist involved stealing money from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a ruthless thug who wants it back. He needs the money to help fund his political campaign against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who is heir to an old, crooked political empire. Manning gives Veronica a deadline to return his money, or suffer the consequences. Manning’s enforcer is the brutal Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya). To deal with the situation, Veronica contacts the other two widows of Harry’s crew, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki). They recruit a driver, Belle (Cynthia Erivo) and prepare to pull off what their husbands couldn’t.

“Widows” has been described by McQueen as a passion project. It is based on a 1983 British TV miniseries and is here adapted by Gillian Flynn, the novelist and screenwriter best known for “Gone Girl” and “Sharp Objects.” They have taken the basic premise of the show and turned it into something richer and more visceral. McQueen’s previous films, such as “Hunger,” “Shame” and the Best Picture Oscar winner “12 Years a Slave,” were striking dramas about political protest, sexual addiction and the horror of slavery. All were made with a special human depth, and it is this part of McQueen’s technique that makes “Widows” quite special. He opens with one of his trademark shots, of two people laying down and looking at each other in profile, in this case Viola and Harry. They share an intimate kiss, and it doesn’t feel like a cheap movie kiss, but like an actual married couple. A director of beautiful visual clarity, McQueen knows how to say much with images. He contrasts moments of exquisite technique with sustained tension and violence. Unlike a million other action movies, in this one the shootings and standoffs are not rushed or used as the center of the story. In one scene Jatemme heartlessly shoots down a henchman who has failed him, first making him rap, in another scene he mercilessly stabs a paralyzed man to get answers. In each scene what we are seeing is the profile of a violent personality, a real criminal operating in a certain mindset. One of the film’s great scenes involves Manning paying a visit to Veronica, making his demands clear with the demeanor of a business associate, yet for a split second it seems like he will strangle her pet dog.

This is a crime thriller in the tradition of films like Michael Mann’s “Heat,” where the thieves are more fascinating than the scheme. Flynn, as with most of her work, succeeds in sketching characters that feel complete and interesting. The three widows each have their own personality, back story, strengths and weaknesses. Viola Davis in a performance of iron will, plays Veronica as the blunt-voiced leader who knows what the stakes are if they fail, Michelle Rodriguez’s Linda has the scrappy street smarts, scoffing at times at Veronica for coming from a more secure position and trying to be a criminal, and then there’s Alice, who at first appears as a sweet ditz, even becoming a high end escort to make money. McQueen and Flynn take these characters which at first seem like traditional heist crew stereotypes and turn them into women battling inner doubts, great tensions and the ache of loneliness. Instead of feeling cheap thrills, we feel empathy for them as they tackle dangerous forces to get what they are owed. McQueen lets us spend time with them. Veronica reaches out to the emptiness on the other side of the bed, and Linda feels the brunt of her mother-in-law unfairly blaming her for her husband’s death. There’s an interesting side story with Alice, as she grows close to a client who seems to genuinely develop feelings for her, until…

The villains are also treated with menace and style. Colin Farrell as Mulligan is a politician who thinks he can be honest, but it’s hard to live under the shadow of a cutthroat like his father, played with racist fury by Robert Duvall. Daniel Kaluuya is intimidating in this film, capable of killing and ordering violence with the attitude of a guy who’s just doing his job.

“Widows” has such rich layers that it’s easy to forget to mention the more traditional, enjoyable thriller elements. McQueen has fun with the details of planning a robbery as the women train on the details, including carrying the weight of hard cash or acquiring guns. Alice at a gun show turns into a hilarious commentary on that good old American love of firearms. But nothing feels overwrought. McQueen wants to tell a story about crime that feels real in every frame. The heist itself is full of energy, but gripping tension because of how authentic it plays. There are also twists of course, but of such consequence that spoilers should be illegal.

When a great director takes on a genre piece the results can either be superb or disappointing. Steve McQueen not only excels with “Widows,” but has delivered one of the year’s best films. The scheme is a dangerous gamble, but the players themselves are never less than compelling.

Widows” opens Nov. 16 in theaters nationwide.