Widows is a remake of a story written by Lynda La Plante, doyenne of British crime writers. She wrote it as a six-part prime-time thriller for Thames TV in 1983, which was so successful she wrote another 6-parter which aired in 1985.
This latest version largely sticks to the storyline of that first series, but has been transplanted to Chicago. The screenplay was co-written by Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame, and Steve McQueen who made the excellent but harrowing 12 Years A Slave. McQueen also directs.
The story opens with the violent ending of a bungled robbery in which four Chicago crims and the proceeds of the crime are incinerated. Or so it seems. Those proceeds were robbed from some very nasty crime bosses who come demanding it from the widow of the main dead crim, or else.
The transplantation to Chicago has enabled the filmmakers to cast at least half the main roles with black actors without it looking like latterday Hollywood liberal box-ticking.
Viola Davis, who you might remember from The Help, plays Ronnie Rawlins, wife of the dead gang leader played by Liam Neeson – who despite being apparently killed early on figures a fair bit in the story, through flashbacks and other devices. He’s left behind plans for his next heist. Ronnie gets hold of them and decides to gather the other widows together to pull it off, which if all goes to plan will net them enough money to pay back the bad guys their husbands ripped off and enough left over for them all to start new lives.
Beautiful Aussie beanpole Elizabeth Debicki plays sexy Alice who accepts Ronnie’s invitation to sign up for the job. It’s dangerous but preferable to the life of high-class prostitution recommended by her mother (Jackie Weaver) as her only means of support now that her gangster husband is dead.
Michelle Rodriguez is Linda, the Latino one left who’s got nothing to lose because her husband has already gambled away everything they owned.
The fourth widow isn’t invited to join the plot because she’s got a newborn baby, although she stays in the plot. Instead, Ronnie recruits Linda’s babysitter, a tough, athletic cookie played by black musician/actress Cynthia Erivo.
Can these sisters do it for themselves?
There’s a subplot or really side-plot involving a power struggle between a ruthless black gangster determined to wrest control of the municipality from the white family that has hitherto regarded it as a virtual inheritance, a bit like the Kennedys in Boston. Indeed one of the best things about the movie is its depiction of contemporary Chicago – the crumbling apartment blocks, the windblown litter, weeds sprouting through the concrete, the hardscrabble lives of the mostly poor black folks who live there. But for all its ‘inclusiveness’ of cast racially, this is no simple-minded exercise in racial identity victimhood. Skulduggery and exploitation cross racial boundaries. Example: the white politician (Colin Farrell) loans money to minority women to set up their own small businesses and makes political capital out of his scheme. One such black woman runs her own hairdressing salon thanks to it. She knows he’s exploiting her, but she’s sticking with it because it’s the best prospect she’s got.
Violence too, crosses racial boundaries. There’s not a huge amount of it by American standards, but when there is it’s often very shocking because it’s literal and graphic, not stylised and cartoonish as in your typical formulaic Hollywood action movie. A particularly cruel scene involving a man in a wheelchair in a bowling alley is played out to the strains of Van Morrison’s sublime ‘Madame George’. I hope that association doesn’t stick in my mind. I couldn’t watch at that point so fingers crossed it won’t
Some people who don’t deserve it come to a sticky end, and some who DO, get their just desserts. There’s a love story, a major plot twist, and some deliberate anxiety inducement by the filmmakers over the fate of a cute little dog. There are also car chases and explosions but I have to say these are kept to a minimum.
An above average Hollywood heist thriller.