After her criminal husband (Liam Neeson) and his gang are killed during a failed robbery, Veronica (Viola Davis) is confronted by criminal-turned-political candidate Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who tells her that her husband's robbery was his own money - and the debt is now hers. With the help of her fellow widows, Veronica tries to put together a heist that'll set their debts and give them enough money to begin again.
Lynda LaPlante's original TV series was written as a direct response to the likes of 'The Sweeney' and 'Z Cars', which often saw women as disposable objects or completely removed from any kind of agency. In 1983, that was groundbreaking and fresh. Making a remake out of that in 2018 may be somewhat less so, but there's still plenty of examples of women being disposable objects in movies.
What's telling about 'Widows' and why it's superior to something like 'Ocean's Eight' is that it actively understands and empathises with its characters. The widows are doing this because they've got no other choice. Elizabeth Debicki's character will likely be forced into a life of high-class prostitution, Michelle Rodriguez's character has lost her business, and Viola Davis' character will be murdered if she doesn't repay the debt. Nobody's doing this for revenge, nobody's doing this simply because they can, nobody's doing it because they're greedy.
Viola Davis' performance embraces this practicality, and only shows glimpses of emotion when it's necessary or uncontrollable. The rest of the time, her hardened glare is enough to inspire the others into action. Elizabeth Debicki gives a compelling portrayal of a woman who's slowly beginning to regain - or maybe even gain for the first time - a sense of control of her own life, whilst Cynthia Ervio's character again is in it purely for practical reasons.
Colin Farrell plays the childish, churlish politician who's wrapped up in the middle of the heist, completely at odds with Robert Duvall's spluttering racist father. It's an interesting dynamic between them, a son who's being forced into a life he doesn't want and women being forced into a life of crime out of practicality. Daniel Kaluuya, who plays the enforcer to Brian Tyree Henry's criminal-politician, is menacing in a way not seen in his career to date.
What Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn's script grapples with, beyond the intricacies of the heist and the reasons they're doing it, is a larger story about the nature of ignorance and how people ignore things because it's for an easier life. When Viola Davis' character is first confronted with the reality of her husband's dealing, she pleads ignorance to the fact. Likewise, the other widows have been ignoring - willfully or otherwise - what their husbands have been up to, and the reality of their situation. To explore all this in the middle of a crime caper movie is exciting, but it does prove to be one of its downfalls.
'Widows' lacks a certain amount of tension and while the heist scenes are staged and executed well, it never feels like it hasn't gone exactly as you'd expect it to. There's a distinct absence of surprise as to how the story unfolds, probably because Steve McQueen's direction is so focused and deliberate that it never feels like it's out of control.
Elegant and gripping, 'Widows' is a twisty crime thriller with style and substance to spare.