Yes, Steve McQueen's Widows is a heist film, set in Chicago, with a group of four women plotting and planning their way to a sweep of millions of dollars that would ultimately free each of them from bills, debt and neighborhood violence. Yes, it's a kind of modernized and muted take on F. Gary Gray's crowd-pleasing Set It Off (1996). Female characters with wildly disparate backgrounds and personalities must band together to attain the one thing they all lack: freedom. But make no mistake. This thoughtful, textured story -- though brutal at times -- stands as one of the clearest depictions of turmoil, racism and nepotism in local politics that's ever been drawn onscreen.
A botched heist kills the husbands of Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Amanda (Carrie Coon). Each has a problem beyond the loss of their spouses: Linda's husband stole all her money; Alice's ex beat the shit out of her; Amanda is raising a 4-month-old infant. And Veronica, well, even though her real job is leading the Chicago teachers' union, the heist leaves her with a debt -- her husband (Liam Neeson) stole money from a gang.
McQueen, working off a Gillian Flynn script, allows every character just enough depth, exactly the right amount of screen time, to demonstrate why they deserve the money. That remains the case as the story gets more complex -- more connected to real life -- than is typical for the heist genre. Davis, of course, is a powerhouse, but the ensemble of women actors here, each flinty in her own way, play off each other with such spark that it sent a shiver down my arms when they gathered together.