A young widow has just buried her husband, but her tough-as-a-Chicago-brick, Polish-American mom is already telling her to get out there and find a man with deep pockets.
You better face facts, says the mother. You don’t have the skills to make it on your own.
The son of a powerful alderman privately tells his wife he might not have the stomach to run for his retiring father’s seat. His publicly compliant wife tears into him, telling him to man up.
An oily-slick businessman is irritated when a paid escort suggests the next time they meet up, they could just hang out and she could cook dinner. Doesn’t she get it? Yeah, he likes her, but as with everything else in his life, she’s just a commodity to him.
We meet these people in “Widows.” Any of them — the execrable moneymaker, the ambitious wife, the cruel mother of the widow — could be the centerpiece of an entire movie. And yet these richly drawn individuals are only bit players in Steve McQueen’s blistering and brilliant and hard-punching masterpiece.
This is that rare movie where even the relatively peripheral characters are unforgettable.
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The Chicago of “Widows” sometimes feels like a supercharged and stylized and exaggerated Chicago, and yet there’s the ring of truth to it all. On its surface, this is a noir-ish heist film, but it’s just as much a political thriller, a story of victims who will be victims no more, a commentary on race and class warfare, and a multi-family drama with Shakespeare-level stakes.
Yep, there’s a LOT of movie in this movie.
In fact, “Widows” is based on a British TV series from the 1980s, and one can see how the Americanized update could have been turned into a six-part Netflix show. It does get extremely crowded at times.
Yet director McQueen, working from a razor-sharp, beautifully balanced screenplay he co-wrote with Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl,” HBO’s “Sharp Objects”), is a maestro at moving from one plot thread to another while always keeping the entirety of the piece on point and on key.
Viola Davis gives a breathtakingly pure performance as Veronica, a high-ranking officer with the Chicago Teachers Union who has been married for 20 years to Liam Neeson’s Harry Rawlings. Veronica knows Harry is a career criminal, but she is content to look the other way and enjoy the fruits of his ill-gotten gains, including their stunning penthouse apartment in a Mies van der Rohe building on Lake Shore Drive.
When the supposed score of a lifetime goes horribly wrong, Harry and his partners are killed. Veronica is still in a state of shock and grief when the South Side crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) pays a visit to her apartment, holding her beloved pup by the collar and giving Veronica a month to pay back his $2 million, which went up in flames with Harry and his gang.
Jamal’s actually trying to get out of the life — or perhaps expand his empire to include the front of political office — by running for 18th ward alderman against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the shifty son of the ancient but still powerful pol Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall).
Jack resents the hell out of his father, who thinks Jack is a weak-spined, fancy fool. When they meet to talk strategy, Tom scoffs at the abstract painting on the wall and mocks his son for spending $50,000 on “wallpaper.”
“It’s art,” snarls Jack.
Imagine the fun at Thanksgiving dinner.
As Jack and Jamal lock horns in a tight race, with Jamal’s chillingly violent brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) ominously lurking about, Veronica finds Harry’s much-sought-after notebook, which contains detailed plans for a heist that if carried out would yield not only the $2 million she owes Jamal, but enough cash for her and the other widows to make a fresh start.
Michelle Rodriguez’s Linda, who has small children and has lost her store due to gambling debts accrued by her late husband, is on board, as is Elizabeth Debicki’s equally desperate Alice, who has resorted to selling herself to that wealthy jerk. The fourth widow, Carrie Coon’s Amanda, has a newborn and wants nothing to do with this insane plan.
With time running out, Veronica reluctantly agrees to allow Linda’s sometime babysitter, Belle (Cynthia Erivo), to join the team.
Mind you, none of them has any experience at this sort of thing, as evidenced in the darkly funny vignettes in which members of the “gang” purchase a getaway van and buy guns in depressingly easy fashion.
Viola Davis deserves a best actress nomination. Veronica is a choice role — a romantic lead, a grieving widow, a terrified victim fearing for her life, the ringleader of an almost comically risky heist — and it’s a thrill to watch Davis showcase her world-class range.
In a film bursting with notable supporting performances, the most exceptional and (by virtue of the screenplay) widest-ranging work comes from Brian Tyree Henry and Elizabeth Debicki, who are sensational.
As always, Steve McQueen is an original and bold storyteller, delivering the goods with dazzling creativity. Even when “Widows” delves into pulpy, blood-soaked material, everything is filtered through the lens of a true artist.
This is one of the best movies of the year.
Twentieth Century Fox presents a film directed by Steve McQueen and written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn, based on a TV series by Lynda La Plante. Rated R (for violence, language throughout, and some sexual content/nudity). Running time: 128 minutes. Opens Thursday at local theaters.