Set in Chicago, the crime catalyst for “Widows” is a $2 million robbery executed by a four-man team who, in turn, get executed by the SWAT unit called to the scene. The money is never recovered, but that doesn’t mean its power-hungry owner Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) doesn’t want it back. Manning confronts the lead heist man’s widow Veronica (Viola Davis) for retribution and gives her two weeks to return his two million…or else.
Veronica, unaware of her husband’s criminal activities, has little recourse: going to the cops could get her killed. A way out emerges when she finds her husband’s plan for a future heist that would net her $5 million. Reaching out to the widows from her husband’s gang, Veronica enlists them to help her execute the robbery- if they succeed, Veronica could pay off Manning and buy each of them their freedom.
It’s a straight-forward set-up that leads to what “Widows” does well: the film juggles an assorted cast of criminals, political piranhas, and those caught-in-the-middle into a cohesive crime drama. Normally, with so many characters involved, a film like “Widows” could easily have turned into a crime ‘saga,’ but director Steve McQueen (Oscar-winner for “12 Years a Slave) and co-writer Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) efficiently dole out the time between everyone involved. Using just over two hours, they sustain your interest while giving you some nifty plot twists and turns as a bonus.
Adapted from a 1983 BBC miniseries, “Widows” is paced and structured a lot like Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 film “Traffic,” which makes sense since “Traffic” was also based on a BBC miniseries from 1989. Also like “Traffic,” the film boasts a uniformly solid cast (including Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Liam Neeson and Jacki Weaver). By spreading its screen time equally among them, acting standouts come from your interest in the roles: I particularly liked Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”) channeling Heath Ledger’s Joker from “The Dark Knight” as Manning’s psychotic strong arm brother and Elizabeth Debicki (“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2”) as the widow Alice who has to overcome an emotionally and physically abusive past to succeed in the tasks Veronica assigns her.
What “Widows” lacks in action, it sustains in substance. With its assembled rogue’s gallery, it’s a crime film that pays you back for your investment of time.