Widows Review: Steve McQueen Masters the Art of the Thriller

Widows masterfully blends high-art craftsmanship with a sharply drawn pulpy narrative to deliver a crime flick that's equally smart and entertaining.

Four years after he won a Best Picture Oscar for his historical memoir 12 Years a Slave, filmmaker Steve McQueen is back with an Americanized movie adaptation of Lynda La Plante's 1983 British TV crime drama mini-series, Widows. McQueen joined forces with Gone Girl and Sharp Objects author Gillian Flynn on the Widows script, in turn delivering a dramatic thriller that seamlessly combines their individual storytelling styles. Fueled by the performances of a star-studded cast, their efforts behind the camera have resulted in one of the best genre films of the year, as well as a festival favorite that very much earns its pre-release hype. Widows masterfully blends high-art craftsmanship with a sharply drawn pulpy narrative to deliver a crime flick that's equally smart and entertaining.

Set in modern-day Chicago, Widows' plot gets underway when a team of armed robbers - led by their boss, Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) - are killed during a job gone wrong. However, in addition to having just lost her husband, Harry's widow Veronica (Viola Davis) comes to learn that Harry and his crew stole $2 million from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a crime boss who's currently in the midst of a political campaign. While Jamal doesn't hurt her, he makes it clear to Veronica: she has one month to settle her late husband's debt or else suffer the consequences of his wrath.

Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki in Widows

Armed with Harry's plans for another job, Veronica manages to recruit two other women - Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki) - who were married to other members of Harry's team to carry out a robbery on their own, in order to both settle their debt with Jamal and secure their futures. However, what was already a dangerous operation becomes all the more challenging when Jamal's political rival Jack Mulligan (Colin Ferrell) becomes part of the equation - all while Jamal's brother and enforcer, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), begins to figure out what the widows are up to.

McQueen and Flynn's Widows screenplay condenses the original TV mini-series' narrative into a tightly constructed plot with nary a scene or story beat that doesn't either set up an important development later and/or result in a clever payoff, down the line. This in turn allows the movie to maintain a taut pace throughout its runtime (which lies north of two hours) and cover a whole lot of ground without taking any unnecessary detours or extra breaks along the way. That's all the more impressive considering that the majority of Widows is composed of characters talking with one another, rather than high-octane set pieces (though, for sure, there are also those). However, thanks to McQueen and Flynn's crackling dialogue, these scenes are just as engaging as the film's action-driven sequences and serve to further flesh out different players' personalities and/or motivations, at the same time.

Viola Davis and Cynthia Erivo in Widows

Widows' pulpy story elements are similarly elevated by McQueen's direction, giving rise to a movie that genuinely looks and feels far more sophisticated than a run of the mill heist thriller. Having collaborated together on three films already, McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt further refine their techniques here and, in turn, bring the proceedings to life through a series of striking still imagery, tight sequence shots, and complex shot compositions that add layers of metaphorical significance to otherwise visually simple moments. The movie also sounds as terrific as it looks, thanks to a combination of precise audial editing and Hans Zimmer's intense music (which is reminiscent of his propulsive score for The Dark Knight) - music that is all the more effective because of how rarely Widows employs it. Altogether, McQueen successfully carries his personal filmmaking approach into the realm of mainstream genre fare, thus evolving his sense of craft in the process.

Of course, Widows wouldn't leave the emotional impact that it does without the soulful performances from a cast led by Davis (who, of course, is fantastic as ever). The film does an excellent job of providing most every actor in its ensemble with a scene or two to shine, be they supporting players (especially Henry and Kaluuya as the Manning brothers, who are equally intelligent and cunning in different ways) or actors who barely appear here at all, yet manage to leave an impression (see: Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and so forth). Nevertheless, Widows is a showcase for its female leads above all else and Davis, Rodriguez, and Debicki thrive in the roles, creating characters who are equal parts sympathetic, flawed, and fascinating to watch as they evolve over the course of the story. And much like she was in last month's Bad Times at the El Royale, Cynthia Erivo is a scene-stealer as the tough single mother Belle O'Reilly, a character who gradually becomes an essential part of the widows' grand scheme.

Daniel Kaluuya and Brian Tyree Henry in Widows

While Widows is easily the most accessible film McQueen has made to date (and can be enjoyed purely as genre entertainment), its narrative is ultimately as layered and thematically rich as those for his arthouse efforts before it. Flynn and McQueen touch upon a whole lot of complicated topics with their screenwriting - ranging from the nature of modern political dynasties to socioeconomic inequality, police racism, and gender role expectations - yet always find a way to seamlessly integrate these issues into the central story, without making them feel tangential or superfluous. It helps that Widows' creatives trust their audience will understand their observations about the worlds of crime and politics (not to mention, their thoughts on American culture as it exists today) without needing to hammer these larger points home, for the most part.

Taken as a whole, Widows marks an impressive step forward in McQueen's continuing development as a storyteller and further goes to show that he's just as capable of delivering intelligent and thought-provoking films for general audiences as he is for the arthouse crowd. Whether you're striving to keep up with this year's awards season contenders and/or are just a fan of great genre movies intended for adults, Widows is a must-see in theaters and benefits from being experienced on the big screen proper. Suffice it to say, McQueen's 12 Years a Slave followup was worth the four-year wait and will leave you wanting to see what he does next.


Widows is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 128 minutes long and is rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual content/nudity.

Let us know what you thought of the film in the comments section!

Our Rating:

4.5 out of 5 (Must-See)
Key Release Dates
  • Widows (2018) release date: Nov 16, 2018
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