For all the folks who grouse about “forced diversity” in genre films, director and co-writer Steve McQueen’s “Widows” is a perfect example of how a clever, clockwork little heist flick can become thematically richer and more dramatically powerful simply by expanding its casting beyond the standard lineup of white-guy actors.
When a robbery in Chicago goes wrong enough to leave all four thieves declared dead, Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis), now-widow of team ringleader Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson), is called upon to clear her husband’s debts to Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a local crime boss running for alderman of a South Side precinct.
Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell are afforded no shortage of scenery to chew upon, respectively, as the corrupt incumbent alderman, Tom Mulligan, and Tom’s entitled son, Jack Mulligan, who’s running against Jamal for his father’s open seat. But make no mistake; this is Viola Davis’ film, and everyone else is just living in it.
Not only does Davis bring the same mix of steely resolve and intermittent vulnerability that should have earned her a starring role like this a long time ago. But she and Neeson work wonders together in portraying the complex chemistry of the Rawlins’ relationship, which is revealed in turns as affectionate, conflicted and ultimately misleading.
In Harry’s absence, Veronica is left to recruit the fellow widows of his partners in crime to use the notes he left behind to pull off a final score that will hopefully settle all their accounts.
Michelle Rodriguez does what she needs to do to convey the frustrations of Linda Perelli, a clothing store owner whose husband Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) gambled away their savings and their shop before he died.
But it’s Elizabeth Debicki who shines unexpectedly as Alice Gunner, exuding the resigned weariness of a lifelong victim of abuse, as she goes from getting black eyes from her husband Florek (Marvel’s “Punisher” Jon Bernthal) to being pimped out by her gaslighting mother Agnieska (Jacki Weaver) after Florek is killed.
Although McQueen’s hammering home of the theme of female empowerment makes clear he subscribes to novelist Garth Marenghi’s mantra that all writers who use subtext are cowards, it’s refreshing and realistic that these women don’t particularly like each other, even as they learn to coordinate their efforts effectively.
Davis’ and Debicki’s characters are especially inclined to dislike one another due to their vast differences, which makes it all the more compelling when they wind up opening up to each other.
Genre films like this lean on the strength of their plot twists, which I won’t spoil, and their actors’ talents, so I feel compelled to offer special mentions to:
• Cynthia Erivo as Belle, an assertive go-getter who remains tenacious even as she gets roped into the rest of the gang’s schemes.
• Daniel Kaluuya (star of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out”) as Jatemme Manning, Jamal’s brother and his satisfyingly sinister henchman.
• Garrett Dillahunt as Bash, the Rawlins’ loyal chauffeur, who comes across as being at least a little bit in love with Veronica.
• Lukas Haas as David, a creepy real estate developer with whom Alice tentatively develops a cooly transactional sexual relationship.
• And the always welcome Kevin J. O’Connor (Beni Gabor from “The Mummy”) as a former associate of Harry’s, who paid a painful price for his own debts.
McQueen previously won the Academy Award for Best Picture for “12 Years a Slave,” and I wouldn’t be surprised to see “Widows” nominated for an Oscar of its own. Among the film’s strengths are directorial flourishes such as a radio interview with a Black Panther playing in the background of one scene and the depiction of the sense of helplessness of a man in prison — details presented while we see Davis’ character struggling to extricate herself from the mess her husband left her in.