Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, ElizabethDebicki, Cynthia Erivo, Brian Tyree Henry, Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya
Rated R for violence, language throughout and some sexualcontent/nudity
2 hrs. 9 min.

First, be advised, Widows is a foreboding film about hardball politics, extortion, treachery and theft. A crime of sorts may also have happened off screen — committed by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association by omitting Widows and its star, Viola Davis, from its list of nominees for the Golden Globe Awards.

Let’s forget about that for a moment, and focus on this dark but savory offering from director Steve McQueen, co-written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and adapted from a British TV series. McQueen (12 Years a Slave) does not make films that are easily digested. Widows, though grim, is like bitter medicine — ultimately of benefit. 

Ms. Davis, last year’s Oscar winner for best supporting actress, pulverizes each role she plays. In this movie, she’s Veronica Rawlings, a Chicago Teacher’s Union Official, widowed when her husband Harry(Liam Neeson) and his crew are annihilated following a heist gone awry. While grieving, she learns Harry owed a $2 million debt to Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a crime boss and candidate for alderman in Chicago’s 18th Ward. Manning gives her a month before the election to get him the money, or die. 

Veronica comes across Harry’s notebook, containing plans for a subsequent heist. She decides to pull it off herself, with the help of the three other women widowed when the hail of bullets and a spectacular explosion killed their husbands. Michelle Rodriguez is Linda, a clothing store owner until she loses the shop to her husband’s shylock; Amanda (Carrie Coon), who has a newborn and declines a role in the heist; and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), a victim of her husband Florek’s physical abuse before he was blown to bits. Linda and Alice are joined by Linda’s babysitter, Belle (Cynthia Erivo), street tough and game for some action.

The plan to steal the $2 million is central to the plot, but Widows has a narrative more complex than that. Jamal Manning is running against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), son of the powerful incumbent alderman, Tom Mulligan, played by Robert Duval, gifting us with yet another commanding performance. The ugliness of Chicago politics and the unwavering issue of race bubble to the surface with as much force as the violence and brutality. Sheer savagery bursts forth through Jamal’s brother and enforcer, the psychopath Jatemme (Daniel Kalauuya). He’s menacing and downright chilling.

Backstories explain the visceral ache that throbs in each of the widows, pain that continues throughout the plotting and execution of the heist. Alice, for example, not only suffered physically at her husband’s hands, but mentally from the manipulations and shaming inflicted by her horrid mother (Jacki Weaver), a woman with a face webbed by tobacco and hate.

One onerous scene is a real-time, dashboard point-of-view shot as Jack Mulligan travels by car from an appearance in the gritty section of the 18th Ward to his well-guarded legal residence a short distance away. It underscores the massive dichotomies that charge this story. 

The moving parts churn to a tense, taut, gasp-inducing conclusion. Some suspension of disbelief is necessary, but Widows is a deliberate two hours of McQueen’s take-no-prisoners storytelling and Viola Davis, her talent like a warhead yet to explode: Something so fraught with power, you only have to know it’s there to be effected. 

Being ignored by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is a fact that might be forgotten by Oscar time. McQueen’s films are challenging, perhaps too much so, when compared to lighter fare. But excellence is sometimes somber. And Widows is an excellent film.