Heist films have been apart of American Cinema since the spaghetti westerns ruled the roost, and the love affair audiences have with them has never waned. We were given a dose of post Vietnam trauma along with the big score in Dead Presidents. We witnessed an unconventional love story with a smooth soundtrack hidden beneath the gunfire in Out Of Sight. We saw spy vs spy hijinks in Mission Impossible. We thrilled to the plans gone wrong in Ocean’s Eleven, Gone In 60 Seconds, Inside Man, The Town, The Usual Suspects, Jackie Brown, Reservoir Dogs, Inception, The Fast And The Furious series, and arguably one of the best heist films ever made, Heat. I recently saw a film that just might good enough to give Heat a run for it’s money: Widows.
Director Steve McQueen weaves a Chicago based tale focused on three widows who must pull off a risky job to pay a debt owed by their newly deceased husbands, who died at the apex of a two million dollar job gone wrong.
While most heist films are full of the usual beats (getting the talented but splintered gang back together, planning and scouting the job, familial bonding, and the inevitable plan going sideways), McQueen’s story has a surprising amount of emotional heft and political clarity that separates this film from it’s colorful kin.
The women in this film are woefully unprepared for the task at hand. There are no wise, grizzled career thieves in this crew. The job they have ahead of them seems like an impossible march to certain death. They’ve got base level skills, no resources, and the looming certainty that if they don’t pull it off, they will perish. Violently. These women are a retired member of the teacher’s union, two mothers barely making ends meet, and a kept woman who turns to escorting to survive. The stark reality of each woman’s situation and reason for joining the quest grab the audience with a vigor that only tightens as the story progresses.
Without spoiling the film, Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, and Cynthia Erivo give glorious llife to a crew of women with their backs against the wall, racing a ticking clock. Brian Tyree Henry is menacing as a career criminal segueing into local politics with the help of his violent but cultured brother, played by Daniel Kaluuya. His equally dangerous and slick opponent for city alderman is played by Colin Farrell, while Robert Duvall shines as Farrell’s deplorably racist father and career.
The city of Chicago is also lovingly depicted here, as the cinematography is clean, precise, and in your face. The emotional impact is heightened by the way we are visually carried along in the tale, keeping us on the edge of our proverbial seats.
While Widows will not dethrone Heat (the Pacino/DeNiro restaurant scene casts a long shadow), this film does turn the heist formula on it’s head, giving us a story relying less on fantasy and more on the real life complexities and emotional uncertainties of today’s world. If you like grit, guns, and endings that leave you with much to ponder, see Widows.