Steve McQueen has established himself as a rather talented director. 12 Years A Slave was one of the better films of 2013 and one of the few times I happened to agree with the Oscars’ choice for Best Picture. When he tackled the heist format I expected something unique, and I wasn’t at all disappointed. McQueen managed to put a clever spin on a tired genre and provide us with a superior and inspired cast. It wasn’t all completely his idea, of course. The film is based on a Canadian miniseries that goes back to the 1980’s. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t found a way to imprint the material with his own style and bold choices. There’s a lot to love about Widows, but I have pretty low expectations for this film at the box office. More on that later. Let’s get down to it, shall we?
Harry Rawlings (Neeson) is a career criminal. His wife Veronica (Davis) knows where the money comes from, but she’s willing to feign a great deal of ignorance to the fact because she has become used to the comfortable style in which they live. But it all comes crumbling down when Harry’s latest heist appears to go horribly wrong and Harry perishes in an explosive encounter with the police along with his entire crew. Now Veronica is feeling the grief that comes with the death of a spouse, but there’s more to deal with than that. The man Harry and his crew took down was a gangster by the name of Jamal Manning (Henry), who has taken a dip into politics. He’s going up against the corrupt Jack Mulligan (Farrell), who is running to take his father’s alderman seat. Manning’s $2 million war chest was Harry’s target, and the money appears to have been destroyed in the explosion that took down the crew. Now Manning has gone to Veronica and has given her one month to refund his money.
Veronica is given access to a safe deposit box left to her by Harry. In the box she discovers his notebook where he carefully detailed all of his jobs…including his next target. She decides to get Manning’s money and a whole lot more by putting together her own crew and following through on Harry’s unfinished job. Where will she find a crew? She blackmails the widows of Harry’s crew members by threatening to rat them out to Manning if they don’t work with her to pull off the job. The new crew includes Linda (Rodriguez) who has a daughter and thinks she owns a clothing store. That is until she finds out it was opened with mob money and they’ve come to shut her down. Alice (Debicki) has been abused by her husband, and now her mother convinces her to turn to high-end prostitution to maintain a living. Talk about your low self-esteem. The heist is on, but it’s going to be touch and go.
There’s a very compelling story going on in the film’s political arena. This is Chicago, and corruption and politics are the same word. The cast here is truly stand-out. Robert Duvall shows that he still has it as the Mulligan patriarch and retiring alderman. He sees his family as a political dynasty, and his son Jack, played by Colin Farrell, has his own ideas of how the city should be run. Together they share few but dynamic scenes. Brian Tyree Henry also puts in a very strong performance as the street hoodlum who is running against Mulligan.
The only trouble is that this political angle to the heist film format is the strongest leg of the film and perhaps its weakest link. The country just went through a brutal political cycle. And I’m not even talking about the hostility and polarization as much as the political fatigue of endless robot calls and wall-to-wall ads on radio, television, internet and streets. The film is a solid one, but I question the timing of the subject matter. A few weeks earlier or six months later and the film would have had a chance to show its stuff. I’m not sure how much of a chance it will have right now. Hopefully McQueen’s reputation will be enough to carry the day.
The film throws some pretty good twists, and McQueen manages to hold your attention the entire time. That’s a significant advantage, because the film clocks in at about 130 minutes. None of it’s wasted, and the film is helped by some of the finest editing you’ll encounter this year. It’s ambitious and just short of a masterpiece. But timing is sometimes everything. “Here’s where I should probably say something reassuring.”