The setup is simple enough: Veronica (Viola Davis), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) are made widows as the film begins, their husbands dying in a fiery explosion after a heist gone bad. The owner of the lifted cash, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), wants his $2 million returned, and he’s willing to let his mad-dog brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) get it back however he can — after the elections, of course. Jamal is running for alderman in Chicago, you see, hoping to become the first African American to win his ward. The $2 million was meant to fund his campaign.
Why does Jamal Manning want to defeat Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), whose father, Tom (Robert Duvall), stepped down from the city council after a heart attack? Is it to improve the lives of his fellow African American Chicagoans? To make a difference for them, to fight for them?
Nah. It’s because alderman is a better scam than the one he’s running. Manning is a criminal, his war chest amassed through misdeeds and murder. As alderman, he can make his scams semi-legit, handing out contracts to family members and friends, earning a kickback on each one along the way. Similarly, Jack is running for his dad’s seat not because he wants to serve the people of his ward but because he knows nothing else; this is the family business, and the family business involves socking away overages on subway expansions to fund a cushy retirement for the pater familias.
The benefits of this line of work are not to be sneered at. McQueen shows us just how lucrative it can be when Jack and his handler, Siobahn (Molly Kunz), get into an SUV and travel from a campaign event promoting “Minority Women-Owned Work” (“Can I get an M-WOW?”) back to his massive home located on the fringes of the ward. We hear Siobahn tell Jack that he needs to man up and knock the stuffing out of Jamal, that no other line of work will be as remunerative as his effort to grift his way up to mayor.
But the camera stays outside the car. And as they discuss Jack’s wavering in the face of scandal and Jamal’s increasingly difficult challenge, we see just why she wants him to maintain the family seat of power: The car travels from a blighted area filled with empty lots and Section 8 housing to leafy, almost suburban environs. A few short blocks seen through McQueen’s camera runs us through a whole cycle of gentrification: from blight to all right to political might. By the time we get to the Mulligans’ iron gates, the camera has shown us just what’s at stake.
This dyspeptic consideration of local politics manifests itself in ways large and small. One example: McQueen, who co-wrote the script with Gillian Flynn, has made Veronica a bigwig with the local teachers union, which helps explain why no one bats an eye at her luxe condo or personal driver. The position also ensures her an audience with Jack: When Tom — who has just finished ranting about the changing face of their district and the need to keep power out of the hands of the black voters — hears his son try to dismiss Veronica when she requests a meeting, he scolds the younger man. She represents a union! A public sector union, at that. Which means she has money and votes and foot soldiers. Crooks know where their power lies: with institutions that they can manipulate and massage.
Every institution in “Widows” has been compromised, from the jobs program to the police station to the public transportation board to the city council. And McQueen’s film is at its best not when it’s cooking up absurd twists but when these corruptions serve as a mirror for the difficult choices our trio of new thieves must make. As a heist flick, it’s fine. But as a profile of a city in distress, “Widows” has few rivals.