It’s probably ridiculous for me to describe the Chicago-set crime thriller Widows as authentic. That’s not due to any fault with the movie. In fact, it’s nothing to do with the movie at all. It’s because I’ve lived almost 90% of my life in Texas. While I’ve done my fair share of traveling, I have not so much as set foot in the state of Illinois, let alone Chicago (a situation I’m anxious to rectify). Widows is as much about that city as it is anything else. It’s an incredibly authentic rendering of the Chicago of my imagination, which I’ve conjured through pop culture representations, journalism and non-fiction works, and basic cultural osmosis.
The movie weaves together fundamental Chicago touchstones into a dense and layered story: corrupt machine politics, a deadly criminal underworld, uneasy racial tensions. Meanwhile, the heist at the center of the movie is as taught and suspenseful as anything you’ll see on the screen this year.
The labyrinthine plot, while not without its problems, is an intricate and masterful construction. Co-writers Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen (who is also the director) adapted their screenplay from a 1980s British television series. The movie begins with a heist gone wrong. Master thief Harry Rawlings and his crew are killed during a shootout with police. The van they are in explodes. The bodies of the four men and the two million dollars they stole are incinerated in the explosion.
The man they stole the money from, a local crime boss and aspiring politician named Jamal Manning, puts pressure on Harry’s widow, Veronica, to repay it. He needs it for his political campaign, so he gives her one month to come up with the money, or else. Veronica discovers a notebook detailing Harry’s next job – worth five million dollars – and she recruits the other widows of Harry’s crew to help her pull it off, so she can be free of Jamal. She promises to split the remaining three million dollars with the women, which would mean financial freedom for each of them.
At the same time, Jack Mulligan, Jamal’s opponent for the alderman city council seat of a poor, southside precinct, focuses on winning the election. The alderman seat is currently held by Jack’s retiring father, Tom, and Jack should be a shoo-in to win, but Jamal is gaining ground in the weeks before the election.
Gillian Flynn – whose delightfully twisted imagination is behind works like Gone Girl and Sharp Objects – has produced a rich, complex crime drama in Widows. The Missouri native made Chicago her adopted hometown after attending Northwestern University for graduate study in Journalism. She brings to life the notoriously cutthroat world of Chicago politics. It’s a world where things like city funding of minority women-owned businesses aren’t just used for an easy photo op., but also as a kick-back system that boarders on a protection racket. It’s a world where a candidate like Jamal Manning can use someone like Jatemme, his brother and brutal enforcer, to carry out his plans of making an alderman council seat as lucrative as his criminal enterprise.
Widows explores the link between politics and organized crime as deftly as a television series like The Wire, one of the most probing fictional examinations of the topic. The creator of The Wire, David Simon, like Gillian Flynn, began his career as a journalist, reporting about the things he would later go on to dramatize. This real-world experience speaks to the authenticity in which both The Wire and Widows are rooted.
Steve McQueen’s direction, as well as his contributions to the screenplay, give the film a gritty intensity that is on par with other exceptional crime dramas. The way he and his editor, Joe Walker, juggle multiple plot (and subplot) threads keeps the story moving while also delivering a satisfying breadth to the world they create.
McQueen is also able to bring to the forefront various social and economic concerns throughout the picture. The character Belle, a hair stylist who earns extra money babysitting through a service called City Sitters, is an excellent example of this. It isn’t one of the other widows recruiting Belle that gets her entangled in Veronica’s heist plan. No, she’s unwittingly caught up in the machinations before that happens. The salon where she works is one of those minority women-owned businesses, so part of the money she and her employer earns goes to the kickbacks that Jamal Manning is so anxious to get a cut of.
Her determination and break-neck pace as she runs to catch a city bus perfectly encapsulates Belle’s need to hustle for every dollar she can get in order to support her daughter. McQueen and Flynn cleverly use a signifier of the stagnant earning potential of everyday people – the rise of the gig economy through apps like City Sitter – to bring Belle into contact with one of Veronica’s new partners-in-crime.
Belle’s plot strand is reminiscent of the work of another native Chicagoan filmmaker. Michael Mann’s Heat also involves a character who joins a crew because his situation is precarious at best. There are other parallels one can make between the exceptional Heat and Widows, not the least of which is an intense heist sequence that both movies inexorably build towards in the last act. The version on offer in Widows doesn’t match the breathtaking suspense and climax that the heist in Heat delivers, but it’s expertly crafted and emotionally riveting, nonetheless.
As complex and penetrating as Widows’ plot is, the story does make a few missteps. It addresses a major current social concern (the unjustified police killings of unarmed black people) in an offhand way, and it includes an unnecessary and underdeveloped plot twist in the last act. McQueen’s penchant for showing graphic, brutal violence – such as in his film 12 Years a Slave – is also explored (some might say exploited) through the character of Jatemme, but with no satisfying examination of that character’s backstory. McQueen delights in staging the act of Jatemme using a knife to repeatedly stab a man in a wheelchair.
Those weaknesses of structure aside, Widows is an engaging and provocative film with much more on its mind than the heist at the core of its story. It’s a compelling look at an American city and the interconnected web of corruption and crime that operates there.
Why it got 4 stars:
- The most exciting thing about Widows is the intricately interconnected plot. The movie operates on several levels: as a political intrigue story, as a heist movie, as race, class, and gender commentary. Almost all of it is brilliantly executed.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- In addition to everything in the review, there is so much else I could have focused on:
- The performances are phenomenal. Everyone from Viola Davis, to Colin Farrell, to Cynthia
Erivo, and many others make this world feel lived in and imbue the movie with real
- I didn’t say enough about McQueen’s mastery of camera movement. There is one
sequence involving a 360° movement around the actors that is breathtaking. Another scene
has the camera posted on the hood of a car as two characters discuss the election. As they
callously talk about the poor constituents of the precinct, the camera pans from one side of
the car to the other. At the same time, the car is moving from an impoverished
neighborhood to a more affluent one, where one of the characters happens to live. It’s a
masterstroke of economical storytelling.
- In addition to Heat, Widows also put me in mind of Steven Soderbergh’s masterpiece Traffic. All three films feel like storytelling for adults. These movies are thematically dense and emotionally resonant; in short, they are movies for grownups.
- The scenes of the widows using their talents to their advantage as they learn the skills they need for the heist is good stuff.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- I watched this on a screener DVD at home. Aside from the occasional bark from the family dog, it was an excellent environment for both Rach and myself. She didn’t like the movie nearly as much as I did.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Director Debra Granik hasn’t directed a fiction film since her critically acclaimed and Oscar nominated film Winter’s Bone in 2010. Her new movie, Leave No Trace, tells the story of a veteran suffering from PTSD, and his relationship with his young daughter. It stars Ben Foster and a virtually unknown actress named Thomasin McKenzie, who is receiving excellent reviews for her performance as the daughter.