Running down the “Widows” cast list is like running down a who’s who of in demand Hollywood talent. There’s dramatic powerhouses like Viola Davis (“Fences”) and Carrie Coon (“The Post”), action genre favorites like Michelle Rodriguez (“The Fate of the Furious”) and Liam Neeson (“The Commuter”), major TV players like Brian Tyree Henry (“Atlanta”) and Jon Bernthal (“Marvel’s The Punisher”) and spotlight newcomers like Daniel Kaluuya (“Black Panther”) and Cynthia Erivo (“Bad Times at the El Royale”). It’s an insane group of insanely talented performers director Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) has assembled, one that could easily could have gone undeserved, as any number of stacked casts do every year. The foundation of “Widows” isn’t in its cast, though; it’s in the script written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (“Sharp Objects”).
For a story that, at times, is almost intimately focused on the internal lives of its leads and even its side characters, thematically “Widows” is an epic work that examines inequity in all its forms, from racism to class to the pitfalls of capitalism. The world is founded on viciously abusive cycles, it argues. Everyone is indebted to someone higher up the food chain. In what is destined to be the movie’s most memorable moment, McQueen mounts a camera on the hood of a car to make his film’s heart manifest and shoots a tracking shot that takes viewers from a poor, predominantly Black neighborhood to ritzy, white mansions in the space of just a few blocks. It’s a breathtaking bit of filmmaking not just for its technical merits, but for what it says without saying anything at all.
This is also a crime film, however, one sold on car chases and gunplay, and from the immediately visceral opening scene, “Widows” establishes itself as a thrill ride just as concerned with the character beats in between the heists as it is with the heists themselves. We’re treated to quiet, idyllic shots of Davis and Neeson in bed together, juxtaposed without warning with scenes of frightening violence, cracking gunshots and screaming. The rest of the movie proceeds in much the same way; even at its most internal moments, the specter of a bloody death – personified with terrifying psychotic energy by Kaluuya – is never far removed from the minds of the characters. It takes its time establishing its story and its huge cast of characters, which only makes the breathless second half that much more enthralling.
It’s on this foundation of smart writing and direction that McQueen’s cast soars. It would be easy to imagine Davis, one of the most wildly talented actresses alive, stealing the show, and while she’s as commanding a presence as ever, the spotlight just as often belongs to Elizabeth Debicki (“The Cloverfield Paradox”) as Alice, a woman struggling to claim her own agency after the death of her abusive husband forces her to find work as an escort. For how brutal and cold “Widows” can be, in Alice’s arc there is an ounce of catharsis without which the film may have proven too bleak.
And make no mistake, for all the popcorn thrills that are promised and eventually delivered upon, “Widows” is a hard movie, one that forces its viewers to look at society and reckon with its flaws and injustice. You’ll gasp at its twists and turns just as you’ll sit back and think long and hard about what you’ve just seen.