Speaking on stage at the Toronto International Film Festival, right before the premiere of “Widows,” his first movie since “12 Years a Slave” (which was five years ago), director Steve McQueen talked about how important it was to set movies in the world of real, recognizable human beings. A lot of us would second that sentiment, yet it’s still not what you expect to hear from someone who’s introducing a heist film. The genre has been around in a major way since the early ’50s, and the template has always been this: When characters get together to plan and execute a robbery, we may see the quiet desperation of their lives, we may taste an ashy undertone of cynical “reality,” but it’s really all about the trip-wire cleverness of the crime itself. Heist movies unfold in a caper-film bubble, and that, one way or another, is their key pleasure.
But “Widows,” as McQueen implied, is another story. It’s a movie in which three women, whose husbands all perished in a robbery gone wrong, band together to steal $5 million, even though none of them has the slightest experience at acting like a criminal. And the web of dire circumstances that lead them to hatch this scheme in no mere set-up — it’s the dramatic heart of the movie. “Widows,” adapted from a British TV crime drama that was first broadcast in 1983 (it was based on Lynda La Plante’s novel), has a script co-written by McQueen and the novelist and screenwriter Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl,” “Sharp Objects”), and it presents an enjoyably dark and sleazy vision of ordinary lives intertwining with the hurly-burly of street thuggery, local machine politics, and half a dozen other forms of daily corruption.
The movie, set in contemporary Chicago, opens with Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis) and her husband, Harry (Liam Neeson), who happens to be major crook, kissing the hell out of each other in bed. The simple fact of a mixed-race marriage presented this casually is still startling to see in a mainstream movie, to the point that we can’t help but invest this passionate pair with a certain romantic idealism. But that’s snuffed pretty quickly. Their early moments are intercut with a turbulent chase, seen from the vantage of a getaway van with its back doors banging open, that ends with Harry and his crew being fired on by the police, until the van explodes into flames, killing all the men onboard. So much for domestic bliss.
Veronica is suddenly a widow. More than that, she’s a widow whose husband left her owing $2 million. That’s how much he stole from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who’s running for alderman of his ward, but he’s also a strong-arm crook who demands that Veronica liquidate her assets, including the sprawling penthouse she lives in, to pay him back.
Viola Davis’s commanding performance roots this scenario in icy fear and shock. Veronica can’t believe what’s happened to her (overnight, she has lost everything), and her eyes tell you that she knows it’s just going to get worse. She keeps having flashbacks to her life with Harry, including one where they nuzzle to Nina Simone singing “Wild Is the Wind.” It’s hard not to notice that Davis, her hair cut short, her eyes beams of fury, would be an ideal actress to portray Nina Simone. She has that kind of force.
In “Widows,” the power of Davis’s performance is that she lets you know, in every scene, that Veronica is living in a world of treachery. She’s the victim of violent bad luck, and of crooks who’ve given her a month to come up with an impossible sum of money. But the way McQueen stages the movie, it’s also saying that she’s the victim of a society that’s still a rigged power game owned and operated by men. In “Widows,” it’s every woman for herself.
The film’s dialogue is thick with salty insults, and McQueen creates a hypnotic panorama of everyday corruption that feels less like a crime caper than like something out of a Robert Altman film or a Richard Price novel. The first half of “Widows” is one moment of playful threat after another, whether it’s Jamal Manning coming over to Veronica’s apartment to set the stakes, or his thug brother, Jatemme — played as a scary slit-eyed sociopath by Daniel Kaluuya, from “Get Out” — taking random stabs at a man in a wheelchair to get the information he wants, or Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the politician who’s trying to hold onto the alderman seat that’s been in his family for 60 years, manipulating his constituents and the media with a program called Minority Woman Own Work, or Jack’s father, Tom (Robert Duvall), making toxically explicit the racist undercurrents of their political reign.
Harry, in death, has left Veronica a notebook that includes the blueprint of a robbery he didn’t get around to committing. As soon as she takes one look at it, Veronica knows she’s going to carry out that heist as if her life depended on it. Which Davis’s feral presence tells you it does.
Veronica enlists her two fellow crime widows because they’re natural allies, and she has no one else to turn to. Tall, willowy Alice (Elizabath Debicki), whose husband was a wife-beater, takes the bad advice of her mother (Jacki Weaver) and markets herself on a website for “companions,” which leads her to connect with a real-estate player (Lukas Haas) who thinks everything is a transaction. Meanwhile, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), a holy-hell firecracker, discovers that her husband was gambling away the rent money on her clothing store, so she has less than nothing to lose.
“Widows” tells the tale of a robbery committed by three women (with a fourth, a hairdresser played with unflappable moxie by Cynthia Erivo, as their driver), yet it’s as far from “Ocean’s 8” as you could get. It’s a reality-based feminist caper-that’s-not-actually-a-caper. There’s one twist that’s such a shock it will make you gasp, and it’s galvanizing to see Davis seize the kind of role that she doesn’t have to cozy up to. The dialogue has the snap of witty danger that’s become Gillian Flynn’s signature.
The robbery is more violent than clever, and that’s part of the point. It, too, unfolds in the real word, rather than the lighter-than-air Hollywood world of Rube Goldberg frippery. The movie keeps us rooting for its desperate-living heroines, who are way past the point of just wanting to have fun (the subtext of every heist film). They’re less concerned with comeuppance than sheer survival, and “Widows” presents their plunge into existential crime as a raggedly noble crusade that turns defiance into a brilliantly enthralling movie.