If you ever wondered what an auteur formalist like Steve McQueen might do with something as common as a car chase, Widows doesn’t disappoint. In the opening scene, as a getaway van careens through Chicago’s sickly lit, midnight streets, the camera remains fixed in the back of the vehicle, looking out the dangling, busted rear doors. From that confined vantage point, the police cars in pursuit chaotically appear in the frame with a jolting, unplanned immediacy. You’re not watching a car chase; it’s happening to you. Meanwhile, intercut with this fixed take are flashback snippets to the domestic lives of the men inside the van—thieves with worried wives, fearful that this job will be their last. (It is.)
After that galvanizing opening, Widows largely dispenses with these men—including Liam Neeson as the ringleader—to focus on the women left behind, played by Viola Davis (as Neeson’s wife), Michelle Rodriguez, and Elizabeth Debicki. Circling the widows in the aftermath of the botched heist are various gangsters, politicians, and general ne’er-do-wells who are sniffing around for the money that has been stolen. These include Colin Farrell as a corrupt alderman, Robert Duvall as his monstrous father, Brian Tyree Henry as a mobster, and Daniel Kaluuya as his sadistic henchman.
It’s an extensive cast in an increasingly labyrinthine plot, drawn from a novel by Lynda La Plante. The screenplay is credited to both McQueen and Gillian Flynn. I’m not sure what the adaptation process was, but it hasn’t resulted in a particularly polished script. The characters, in particular, are inconsistently realized, so that even a powerhouse like Viola Davis has trouble getting a fix on Veronica, the wife of Neeson’s ringleader. Throughout the film she wavers back and forth between being an oblivious wife who is in over her head and a badass-in-waiting who was always every bit as savvy as her husband. The women played by Rodriguez and Debicki come across similarly; scared or ditzy in some scenes, they’re formidable and clever in others. Unable to project any solid sense of themselves as individuals, these three never really generate any tangible chemistry with each other.
Widows largely works, then, not as a character study but as a consideration of corruption on a larger, societal scale. This also puts it closer in line with McQueen’s other work, 12 Years a Slave in particular. There is another bravura single take in which the camera is attached to the hood of Farrell’s car as his alderman is driven down the streets of a blighted Chicago neighborhood. As the alderman makes blithely racist observations from the back seat, the camera pans across the windshield (casually noting his African-American driver) then toward the other side of the street, where the homes gradually become grander. It’s a sweeping gesture that captures the segregation that defines so much of contemporary Chicago, where underserved communities and wealthy ones often sit just blocks apart.
Such technique elevates Widows above something like Ocean’s 8, another gender-flipping heist thriller from 2018. Yet there’s also something to be said for the clockwork plotting and snazzy star chemistry of that Gary Ross-directed flick, starring Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett. Between the two, I like Widows better. But strangely enough, Widows made me appreciate Ocean’s 8 more than I did before.