Disclaimer: It's hard to write about Widows without ruining it, so I'm just going ahead with rampant spoilers. If you haven't seen it yet, be advised.
Steve McQueen's Widows has one of the most eclectically impressive casts in recent memory. Viola Davis! Michelle Rodriguez! Liam Neeson! Colin Farrell! Daniel Kaluuya! Robert Duvall! Jon Bernthal! It's like the Oscar-winning director reached into an oversized Scrabble bag filled with celebrity names and started plucking out random tiles.
It's also a little difficult, though not in a bad way, to initially determine what Widows is, and what it's trying to do. There aren't many movies about coordinated robberies that are this bleak; even if things start out tough, usually the band of brothers—or in this case, sisters—gels over some common thread and sees their fortunes flip. Not here; in the world that McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn have cooked up, success is along the lines of “buying your way out of self-imposed sex slavery” or “not being murdered.”
We open on Harry Rawlings (Neeson) mere moments before he's killed during a botched robbery. His wife Veronica (Davis) seemingly turned a blind eye to his felonious doings; nevertheless, she's soon confronted by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) and his enforcer Jatemme (Kaluuya), who demand she reimburse the $2 million that Harry stole from them and that subsequently disappeared in a van explosion. Jamal is also running for alderman against Jack Mulligan (Farrell), who claims to be one of the good guys but is likely—at the very least—embezzling money. His father Tom (Duvall) is a former politician and cranky old racist who wants Jack to adopt the family lifestyle. Oh yeah, and Linda (Rodriguez) is the wife of one of Harry's partners; she becomes part of Veronica's desperation heist team in order to pay back the debts their husbands left behind.
Oh yeah times two: Harry is still alive, and he had a kid with his other partner's wife Amanda (Carrie Coon), and he's in cahoots with Jack. And obviously, he doesn't really love Veronica anymore, mostly because their mixed-race son was killed by cops and he blames her blackness. This is a lot to wrap your head around. But it's to McQueen's credit that it's harder to type out than it is to consume. A lot of the details are unspoken or unsaid; Widows is often at its clunkiest when McQueen puts them on-screen (see: the reveal that Harry is working with Jack).
From director to cast, everyone involved does their part and then some. To illustrate just how far Jack is removed from the neighborhood he's aiming to represent, McQueen follows him from a speaking engagement to his fancy home by attaching a camera to the front of the moving car. We hear characters talking within but all we can see is the scenery as it changes from urban blight to green trees and brick mansions. And he never forces Veronica to launch into a heated monologue on how Harry betrayed her; in fact, she never even reveals that fact to her team. Instead, he lets Davis show us how much it hurts with her eyes, her posture, and the occasional uncontrollable short outburst. He knows he has a talented bunch of actors and actresses, some of whom presumably took bit roles just to work with McQueen. He lets them do their thing, and the film is better for it.
Though it's not a Soderbergh-ian heist movie in the vein of Ocean's Eleven or Logan Lucky, part of me was expecting McQueen to whip up a neat and tidy conclusion. What we get instead is an ensemble character study where almost everyone is handed their just deserts. Not everything is executed to perfection; Rawlings, in particular, loses his third dimension about two-thirds in and becomes a generic (albeit emotionally powerful) obstacle for Veronica to overcome. But the fate of Farrell's Mulligan really sums up what makes Widows great: his hated father is gone, but the murder catalyzes a political victory Jack never wanted. In all likelihood, he'll become the man Tom Mulligan always dreamed of. And it's all decided off-screen; we don't get a final, unnecessary shot of Farrell looking dejected. The pieces are all there, to be lightly placed together by anyone who paid attention.
This isn't always flashy; it lacks a certain level of moneymaking pizzazz. And it’s not like Soderbergh had Andy Garcia proclaiming, “Oh my, that Danny Ocean, I sure am glum,” so there aren't a ton of bonus points earned by forgoing melodrama as well. But Widows really does stay true to what McQueen and Flynn build from the start. Davis and her gang aren't thriving; they're surviving. They're not forming bonds that will last for two increasingly wacky sequels and a spin-off; they're desperate and sad, and that vibe is laid on thick. It might not be the most fun time you'll have at the theater this year, but it is one of the best films you'll see.