The Chicago portrayed in “Widows” is not a pleasant place. It’s a town so ensnared by corruption, the city would die a grisly death if someone were to pull out all the tentacles of bribery, fraud and vice.
Racism is present in all its forms, and its frequent and blunt expression reveals thick veins of hated running just beneath the Chicago’s top layer of skin.
And it’s a city where a kind word could be a lie, violence can flare up without warning and loyalty is in short supply.
In short, it’s the kind of place that makes you wonder why Sinatra, or anyone for that matter, would sing joyously about it being their kind of town.
But what a backdrop for a heist movie, especially one in which four women pull off the impossible.
Perhaps you’re doing a little counting and are confused. Don’t worry; you read that right. In “Widows,” four women – not eight – steal a pile of cash from under the cocaine-dusted nose of a crooked politician.
Greed is not their motivator. Rather, the ladies must pay back a brutal crime boss after their husbands are killed during a botched robbery or face severe consequences. (As Sean Connery once said, that’s the Chicago way.)
It might sound like “Widows” drew inspiration from “Ocean’s Eight,” but that’s not the case. Instead, the film is based on a British 1980’s TV series with the same name.
I’ve not seen the television show, but “Ocean’s Eight” and “Widows” have little in common. The former is a breezy mainstream offering in which every creative choice was tailored by a studio to please crowds.
“Widows” is a somber adult drama that uses a heist as its framing device.
With director Steve McQueen (“Shame” and “12 Years A Slave”) behind the camera, and both McQueen and novelist Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) at the keys, “Widows” nails the political and racial realities of Chicago with an impressively perceptive eye.
The tense, profanity-filled conversations between Jack Mulligan, a politician, and his father, Tom, are shocking in their revelation of the deep-seeded hatred the family has for the people of color they represent.
Their dialogue is also tragic in its depiction of the contempt the two have for each other. They both appear as beacons of hope in public, but can anything good come out of hearts as dark as theirs?
McQueen and Flynn also handle an expansive cast with grace, imbuing characters like Veronica Davis, a teacher’s union delegate whose husband was the spearhead of the job that went south, and Linda Perelli, a clothing store owner and the wife of another dead thief, with a remarkable amount of nuance and depth.
Each of the film’s many characters has a smaller story within the larger narrative, which fleshes them out beautifully. I was particularly drawn to a third wife, Alice, who turns to escorting to support herself.
At first, I questioned if the detours along her encounters with a lonely real estate developer were necessary, but they ultimately provide the foundation for a striking portrait of self-empowerment.
McQueen and Flynn weave these characters into an elaborate tapestry of relationships, all without weighing down the story of the heist.
This gives rise to exquisitely crafted dialogue, including this exchange between Mulligan and Davis, which is driven by a powerful undercurrent of hidden agendas:
Mulligan: “What I’ve learned from men like your late husband, and my father, is that you reap what you sow.”
Davis: “Let’s hope so.”
Although the heist itself is well-staged, McQueen is not a visually flashy director, which might disappoint viewers who are hoping to see the same kind of slick action films like “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Heat” provide.
However, this approach keeps “Widows” grounded.
“Widows” deviates from this position with its various twists and turns. While no heist film worth its salt would waltz into theaters without offering at least a few double-crosses and shocking surprises, I was so caught up in the surrounding drama that I didn’t see them coming. That said, in retrospect, they are a bit obvious.
But that’s OK, because with well-known actors like Viola Davis, Collin Ferrell and Liam Neeson doing terrific work, and relatively unknown performers like Elizabeth Debicki (Alice) doing equally impressive turns with their characters, it’s clear “Widows” focuses on the right things.
When I think back on “Widows,” I remember its characters and story more than its images, which is unusual for me. Like I said, McQueen is not a showy director.
Nevertheless, he makes good choices visually, and is skilled at using the camera to tell the story and define relationships.
When you see “Widows” (and I hope you do), watch for the unbroken shot captured from the hood of the car in which Mulligan travels from a meeting with his political opponent to his house, and consider what the image says about both Mulligan and the other man.
Also look for the exquisitely crafted shot of two characters in a diner who are separated by distance but placed next to each other in a mirror. It’s one of the most memorable images I’ve seen in a film this year.
Likewise, “Widows” is one of 2018’s best. As a drama, it effectively casts a disapproving eye on a world of corruption and racism, and as a heist flick, it’s entertaining without being improbable.
In other words, McQueen and Flynn pulled off an impressive job of their own.