Kiss kiss bang bang. Those four words, described by Pauline Kael as “the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of the movies,” are an accurate account of the way in which the new Steve McQueen film, “Widows,” begins. The kissing unites Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his wife, Veronica (Viola Davis), in bed, and it tells of both tenderness and lust. As Harry moves in for a smooch, he turns it, half jokingly, into a roar, and the roar then turns into mayhem—gunshots, the slam of a door, and a vehicle pulling away. The cool white sheets of the marital bed are traded, in a blink, for the nighttime streets of Chicago. Talk about cutting to a chase.
The editor is Joe Walker, who collaborated with McQueen on “Hunger” (2008), “Shame” (2011), and “12 Years a Slave” (2013), and this single transition, from kiss to bang, doesn’t just jolt “Widows” into life. It also introduces us to the two worlds that the movie encompasses. One world is that of the penthouse where Harry and Veronica reside, with its art works and its loaded bookshelves, and where they embrace to the sound of Nina Simone’s “Wild Is the Wind” on the turntable. The other world is that of firearms, fireballs, and the stink of corruption—the world in which Harry, a career criminal, has made both his money and his mark. The second world, needless to say, has funded the first. Wild is the Windy City.
The movie is barely into its stride when Harry dies. (Most of the loving scenes, between him and his wife, occur in flashback, within the mournful roll call of her memory.) He’s the boss of a four-man gang that is ambushed by police, after an armed robbery. During the shoot-out, which is capped off by an explosion, all four are killed, though what matters to McQueen is not the dead men but the womenfolk they leave behind: Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), Amanda (Carrie Coon), and Veronica. It’s the old Scarlett O’Hara trick: get rid of your husband, and have more of the story to yourself.
As a thriller, “Widows” is unusually fractious, riven with fresh grief and scratchy with frustration. Nobody—neither the quick nor the dead—seems able to rest in peace. The trouble with Harry, for instance, is that he owed two million dollars to Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry), a crook who is going straight, or, at any rate, running for alderman of the Eighteenth Ward—“passing bills and shit,” according to his brother and enforcer, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya). Jamal pays a visit to Veronica, invading her space with his bulk and demanding his money back; she has a fluffy white dog, and, even though Jamal doesn’t cram it into the blender or hoof it out of the window, you fear that he might do so at any moment. Veronica is not alone in her dire wants. Linda, with a family to support, runs a store that is repossessed, and Alice is so desperate that her mother (Jacki Weaver) proposes escort work. (Thanks, Mom.) How should the bereaved be raising cash?
And the answer is: Don’t raise it, steal it. Veronica finds a super-secret notebook, in which Harry wrote down his plans for a major heist. On the principle that anything boys can do, girls can do better, Veronica persuades Linda and Alice that they should team up and execute the heist themselves. The fourth widow, Amanda, is not tempted, for reasons that we don’t yet understand, so Linda’s babysitter, Belle (Cynthia Erivo), is recruited as the getaway driver. Belle, my favorite character in the movie, is also the least benighted. She’s always sprinting to catch buses or racing between tasks, and there’s something light-footed in her attitude to the whole scheme. She doesn’t have a broken heart or a hidden agenda; she’s a hairdresser, happy to earn a little extra. Alone of all the folks onscreen, she’s the one who comes nearest to having fun.
“Widows” is written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn, the author of “Gone Girl,” and is based on a British TV series from the nineteen-eighties, set in London, that McQueen reportedly admired in his youth. The shift to the present day is not an unqualified success. The idea of a modern thief solemnly scribbling down his to-do list, on paper, is absurd, and forensic scientists of today will scoff at the narrative kinks. (If you’ve watched far too many shadowy thrillers, as I have, you’ll spy the twist an hour or so away.) Also, who honestly thinks that anyone—man or woman, black or white, now or thirty years ago—can, without previous experience, have a crack at armed robbery? It’s not exactly a hobby. Very few professions can be mastered by amateurs in a rush. Beekeeping can take years.
As for the switch of location, Chicago doesn’t feel particularly lived-in, and the action tends to hop from one patch of town to the next without pausing to sniff the air. Yet the people who breathe it are a convincing crowd, not because they dwell in harmony (there’s not a murmur of civic togetherness) but precisely because of the practiced mistrust with which they scrape against one another, angling for advantage and probing for weak spots. Take the terrifying Jatemme, who prowls round and round some poor doomed soul from the neighborhood, eying him from inches away, as if checking him for leaks.
The most experienced probers are the Mulligans, a white political dynasty that prides itself on having kept the city in its pocket for so long, though its dominance is starting to fray. Jack (Colin Farrell), the latest—and, despite his blustering rhetoric, the most reluctant—Mulligan, who is up against Jamal in the local election, is told by his father, the rebarbative Tom (Robert Duvall), “Don’t want to see you become the first Mulligan to lose to a nigger.” The director of “12 Years a Slave” has lost little of his talent for moral shock, and the new film retains a clear-eyed vision of what has changed, and just how much has not, in the contesting of American power.
If every McQueen movie, even one with a plot as propulsive as that of “Widows,” grows oddly depressing, it’s because he sees the world as a cluster of transactions. Either we are bought outright or we sell off pieces of ourselves like strips of land, in the anxious hope of getting something in return. The trading can be monstrous, or comic, or both. Look at Alice (played with verve by the tall, droll Debicki), who, obeying her mother’s advice, and hating herself for doing so, sleeps with a wealthy man (Lukas Haas) for money. When vertical, she towers over him. No wonder he craves the horizontal. The sex is more headlong than we expect, although Alice’s gasps are part of a performance, and all of McQueen’s persistent themes are there in the grappling couple: hunger, enslavement, shame.
“Widows,” in other words, is a merger—of silliness and perspicacity, of conspiratorial gloom and surprising violence. (Even those who wield it can be taken aback.) So strong is the cast that it carries us over the gaps in the movie’s logic. What Veronica—an upright citizen, way too mature to be wowed by the glamour, such as it is, of the criminal calling—was doing with Harry to begin with remains a mystery, yet the depth of her sorrow rings true, thanks to Viola Davis. One lengthy closeup, a microcosm of the entire film, finds her staring into the mirror before Harry’s funeral, first howling, then tussling with her tears, determined to square her shoulders and not be crushed by loss. Countless viewers, everywhere, will know the feeling.
What a month for Neesonites. If your taste runs to actors who loom large without being overbearing, and whose size does not protect them from pathos and perplexity, then Liam Neeson’s your man. There is a sense of awful force being restrained, but only just, in Harry Rawlings, and again in the nameless nomad whom Neeson plays in the latest Coen brothers movie, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” He rides through wintry landscapes, from one small town to another, with his living cargo, who is also his source of income: a young man without arms or legs, who is presented in a tiny travelling theatre. There, he declaims poems and speeches (Shelley’s “Ozymandias” is a highlight) to a paying but slowly dwindling audience.
This fable is the third of six chapters in the film—separate Western tales, prefaced by the opening of a storybook. (Walt Disney was fond of the device. In “Pinocchio,” Jiminy Cricket is the opener.) The first chapter stars Tim Blake Nelson as a merry and murderous cowboy who sings between kills; the second brings us James Franco as a bandit; in the fourth, Tom Waits prospects for gold in a paradisiacal valley; the fifth, which is the longest and the best, tells of a modest maiden (Zoe Kazan) on a wagon train, and of what befalls her; and the last, with Brendan Gleeson, is a spooky story that, strangely, forgets to be frightening.
It’s a mixed bunch, often flimsy, with deliberate lurches of tone, and the Coens, as ever, are unable (or unwilling) to decide whether barbarous bloodshed is something to be flinched from or cackled at. Yet I came away haunted by a scattering of sights and sounds—above all, by the recitations of the limbless man, which thrum with genuine yearning. He is beautifully played, with a little help from C.G.I., by Harry Melling, who was once the odious Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films. Funny how people grow up. ♦