For his latest release, director Steve McQueen (“Shame,” “12 Years a Slave”) adapted a 1983 British TV crime drama based on a novel by Lynda La Plante, best known for creating the “Prime Suspect” television crime series starring Helen Mirren. McQueen's script, which he wrote with Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl,” “Sharp Objects”) offers the same star turn for Viola Davis, whose performance as the bereaved Veronica Rawlings could have merited a change in the movie's title from the plural to the singular.
But Veronica isn't the only widow here. Her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) is the leader of a gang whose last heist—$2 million cash stolen from the campaign of crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) in his bid to go legit as Chicago alderman (a move taken from “The Wire”’s Stringer Bell's playbook)—ends in a fiery confrontation with the Chicago police, killing the husbands of Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Amanda (Carrie Coon).
With Jamal and his brother Jatemme, played by a scarily unblinking Daniel Kaluuya, demanding their money back from Veronica, she uses Harry's notebook, his only bequest to her, to go ahead with his next job—$5 million stashed in a safe room of Jamal's established political opponent, the legacy ward boss Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell)—and threatens to give up the other women if they don't help her.
As a heist movie, Widows is a bungling wreck. Its twists are easily anticipated and the characters make frustratingly stupid decisions, such as not showing up to a meeting or using a known gathering spot. Additionally, there are subplots, including Amanda's reasons for not showing up to meetings, which could have been expanded. This seems to be the hallmark of Flynn's projects.
Beyond the film's problems with logistics are the backstories. Some are more successful than others. Watching Jacki Weaver as Alice's overbearing mother is to witness dysfunction leading to continued corruption, and Debicki excels at smoothing over Alice's desperation. Its parallel, one supposes is Tom Mulligan's (Robert Duvall) bullying of his son Jack, but his forthright views on nepotism, graft and bigotry are unnecessary. He's the one character not being squeezed by anything but his own hate and greed.
Need, more than avarice, is the driving force behind the movie. While some are being extorted others are fighting disenfranchisement; none more so than Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a casualty of the gig economy, and the only other character who can measure up to Davis' widow.