Minutes into the Fox movie “Widows,” Viola Davis’s character, Veronica Rawlings, is shown sleeping, as she has done for years, on the right side of the bed. She wakes up and reaches over to the pillow next to her — just another step of the morning routine with her husband, Harry, played by Liam Neeson. But in this scene, her hand lays still, just for a moment, in that vast empty space that suddenly comes with losing a loved one.
Yes, “Widows” — directed by Steve McQueen, who also helmed “12 Years a Slave,” “Shame” and “Hunger” — is being categorized as a “gritty heist thriller,” which it is. But the first hour of the crime drama is grounded in grief, and it makes the rest of the movie resonate so much more. When Neeson’s Harry and his money-snatching mob don’t survive a botched job, the titular widows are realized: Davis’s Veronica, an upper-class woman of the teaching trade; Michelle Rodriguez’s Linda, who operates an occasion dress shop; Elizabeth Debicki’s Alice, a housewife often hit by her husband; and Carrie Coon’s Amanda, a mother to a four-month-old baby.
After the handful of onscreen funerals — each of which are culturally specific — each woman is then left alone, not only with her grief for her late husband, but also with his secrets. Davis’s Veronica says she had no idea that her husband stole money to make ends meet, and quickly learns that, despite her expensively rented penthouse and her closet of designer fashions, she is indeed house-poor. Rodriguez’s Linda tasked her husband with paying her store’s lease, but the money she handed him was instead forked over to bookies and short-term loan sharks, and soon, her livelihood is seized from her hands. Debicki’s Alice takes the advice of her mother and tries out a dating site “for generous men.”
These three women meet for the first time to potentially execute their late husbands' plans for another Chicago robbery. It’s not until a third of the way into the movie, a time period that may seem relatively long and slow, as so many other heist movies assemble their motley crews within the span of a zippy montage. But this group — all of whom are acting at the top of their game — doesn’t come together for the thrill of the thing, or even with any motivation of greed.
Most empathetically, it’s because they’re not only in dire need of money, but also financial autonomy, and the latter is arguably more valuable. McQueen’s insightful directing — coupled with a twisty yet realistic script by “Gone Girl” and “Sharp Objects” scribe Gillian Flynn — takes its time in these foundational scenes, letting the audience get adequately invested in these characters' stories and struggles.
While all of this is happening, the rest of the city is preparing for a local election. One downtrodden district has been run by Robert Duvall’s character for years, and his son (played by Colin Farrell) is highly favored to be his replacement. His opponent is played by a brilliant Brian Tyree Henry who, along with his brother (a ruthless Daniel Kaluuya), have no previous experience working in government. Why go into public service? Because politics is a criminal business, explains Henry’s character, Jamal Manning: these are men chased by people with cameras and microphones, while black men without power are targeted by people with guns.
McQueen and Flynn don’t shy away from any these hard truths; in fact, their storytelling stares all of it square in the eyes. This makes the attempted heist — in which the Manning brothers task the women with repaying their late husbands' debts — all the more thrilling: the stakes are high, but they’re also based in a desperation that feels authentic for the moviegoer. It is not an escapist tale, it’s a heightened version of a reality that people go to the movies to forget about for a while.
Therefore, the emotional beats of “Widows” — every respite from the betrayal of sudden death, every sliver of newfound female empowerment, every morsel serving of street justice — are incredibly satisfying.