Chicago gets the gritty city treatment in the new film from Steve McQueen, director of “12 Years a Slave,” and Gillian Flynn, writer of “Gone Girl.” Viola Davis leads an ensemble of formidable performers in a dark and depressing heist movie. Davis plays Veronica, the wife of a doomed career criminal played by Liam Neeson. Neeson and an all-male team botch a heist and end up paying the ultimate price. The widows they leave behind, led by Davis and featuring Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Carrie Coon, embark on a robbery of their own after they learn the money lost in the heist belongs to Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a local criminal trying to go straight by running for Alderman of the 18th Ward. Unfortunately, Jamal and his brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) are up against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), son of the long-standing Alderman Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall), and this particular father-son team are a pair of white devils. They are nepotistic, racist and power-hungry. Even though Jamal is a criminal and his brother is a psychopath, you find yourself rooting for them because the Mulligan men are so awful.
The movie does threaten to buckle under the weight of how many things are going on at once, but for just over two hours, the cast and crew do a good job of telling a coherent story that actually manages to come to a satisfying conclusion. Current issues like police brutality, white supremacy within federal institutions and sexism are addressed in a fairly nuanced way. Twists and turns abound, making for a particularly engaging movie.
McQueen and his cinematographer certainly make Chicago look good, choosing to shoot in parts of the city not normally represented in mainstream films. One of the best shots of the film consists of a mounted camera on the hood of a car, as it faces the windshield and rotates from left to right as the audience sees the 18th Ward transform from a struggling, clearly low-income, black majority neighborhood to a gentrified, mostly white enclave in a matter of blocks.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with the exception of Neeson, who can’t make his complicated character more interesting. Davis is amazing as usual, making small gestures and carrying an immense amount of weight.
I’d say that “Widows” has a powerful message, or several, wrapped into an engaging, if occasionally hard to watch, heist flick.