One of the many things you may learn from “Widows” is that cemeteries don’t have gravediggers anymore; backhoes do the job. Burials figure early in the story after a big heist goes south and the crooks come to an untimely end. That leaves their widows to dig themselves out from under a mountain of debt and decades of male domination. Their solution is to stage a heist of their own, so this clearly qualifies as a heist film, and a hugely entertaining one. But Steve McQueen’s fourth feature—he directed “12 Years a Slave”—is also a powerful drama of self-discovery and hard-won female power, a vision of limitless civic corruption—the city being Chicago—and an incendiary variation on the theme of carrying a torch.
The widow-in-chief is Veronica Rawlings: she was married to the crook- in-chief, Liam Neeson’s Harry Rawlings. She’s played, hypnotically, by Viola Davis with an air of unswerving purpose, a growing sense of vulnerability and a dry wit. Veronica was happy with Harry. Now that he’s gone, she’s not only grief-stricken, but aghast to discover that he stole $2 million from a local hoodlum with political ambitions—that’s Jamal Manning, who’s played by Brian Tyree Henry. (Jamal is black, but the film is colorblind when it comes to venality in the public sector; his rival for alderman, Colin Farrell’s Jack Mulligan, would sell his soul, if he had one, to move one step closer to the mayor’s office.) Predictably, Jamal wants his money back, and sees Veronica as defenseless against his threats. “You’re nothin’ now,” he tells her scornfully.
A remark like this could be the setup for an equally predictable adventure in feminist triumph, but that’s not the game Steve McQueen wants to play with Veronica and her co-widows, played by Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo. Yes, they practice marksmanship and acquire the equipment they need for a heist—a heist that Harry had planned in minute detail as his next job. But “Widows” doesn’t mean to be another version of “Ocean’s 8.” The filmmakers’ greatest pleasure is in discovering unusual faces and the secrets behind them; in following the model of the peerless TV series “The Wire” with an anatomy of what ails a great city; and, above all, in exploring the inexhaustible complexities of human personality.
One fascinating character after another takes the stage. Daniel Kaluuya is Jamal’s sadistic brother. Jon Michael Hill is Reverend Wheeler, dispensing zestful hypocrisy from his pulpit. Robert Duvall is Jack’s decrepit politician father, Tom Mulligan, living proof that an empty shell can still resonate with fury. And at center stage through it all stands Veronica—a woman scorned, then furious, then focused as never before on making her mark in a man’s world.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.