A film review by Craig J. Koban December 2, 2018

WIDOWS jjjj
 

2018, R, 128 mins.

 

Viola Davis as Veronica Rawlins  /  Michelle Rodriguez as Linda Perelli  /  Elizabeth Debicki as Alice Gunner  /  Cynthia Erivo as Belle  /  Colin Farrell as Jack Mulligan  /  Brian Tyree Henry as Jamal Manning  /  Daniel Kaluuya as Jatemme Manning  /  Jacki Weaver as Agnieska  /  Carrie Coon as Amanda  /  Robert Duvall as Tom Mulligan  /  Liam Neeson as Harry Rawlings  /  Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Carlos Perelli  /  Jon Bernthal as Florek Gunner  /  Garret Dillahunt as Bash O'Reilly  /  Lukas Haas as David  /  Matt Walsh as Ken

Directed by Steve McQueen  /  Written by Gillian Flynn and McQueen

 

 

 

Steve McQueen is a filmmaker that seems positively unafraid of subject matter or genre challenge, having seriously wowed me with such diverse film offerings such as 2008's HUNGER (about the 1981 Irish hunger prison strike), 2011's SHAME (about a man dealing with a debilitating sex addiction) and 2013's 12 YEARS A SLAVE (a historical period drama about a New York African American that was kidnapped into slavery in the mid 1850s).  

After a far too long absence the British director has returned to the silver screen, this time dabbling in heist thriller waters for the first time ever.  He teams up with GONE GIRL screenwriter Gillian Flynn for WIDOWS, which is, in turn, based on a British TV crime series of the same name that was broadcast in 1983.  The final end result is one of the best and most refreshingly unconventional heist films in years, which also happens to contain perhaps the finest ensemble cast at the top of their game of 2018.  More importantly, WIDOWS reinforces McQueen as a deeply poised filmmaker that's clearly working in a whole other upper qualitative stratosphere than his contemporaries. 

WIDOWS also works on a level that few other heist genre films have in the past in the sense that it's from a female prerogative.  The film's premise concerns four Chicago women that are inexplicably brought together to plot and orchestrate a daring robbery that their dead husbands (also crooks) failed to follow through on.  This isn't the first female centric caper flick to hit this year (see OCEAN'S 8), but WIDOWS manages to mix its darker and grittier tone with the more standard accoutrements of these types of popcorn films.  That, and there's a considerable amount of deeper thematic terrain that McQueen's film is traversing, like female empowerment and sisterhood in the aftermath of tragedy, male/female power dynamics, and rampant civic corruption left unchecked.  Yes, WIDOWS delivers on requisite elements of action and intrigue, but it's more deliberately paced and patiently observant than other genre works.  Plus, it has something fundamental to say about how women try to pull themselves out of their mutual dependency on the men in their lives in order to become their own self-actualized and tightly knit group that can rise to the occasion during an insurmountable challenge. 

 

 

The never-been-better Viola Davis plays Veronica, who was once married to Harry (Liam Neeson), a career criminal and thief that tried to keep what he did to make ends meets as far away from his spouse as possible.  I used the past tense in describing Harry because he and his squad end up dead at the hands of police after a daring heist gone horribly wrong.  Veronica tries to pick up the pieces of her tormented life (she not only has lost her husband, but also a son earlier on as well), and while she's still grieving a local and corrupt politician named Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry) enters her life and threatens her to recover the millions that Harry apparently stole from him (which supposedly got burned to shreds when their getaway van exploded, causing Harry and company to die).  Jamal gives Veronica an ultimatum:  Cough up the stolen loot in a month or die.  Jamal himself has his own stresses, especially for the uphill battle he faces against another politician running for office in Jack (Colin Farrell), who, in turn, has to deal with the daily grind of filling his father's (Robert Duvall) very large shoes.   

Fully realizing the severity of Jamal's threat to her life, Veronica goes on the offensive and recruits the other widows of the men that died with Harry on his botched robbery job, including Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), to hatch out and pull off a secret robbery that Harry never was able to launch successfully.  Now, Veronica has to face the arduous task to turning these once fragile wives into a steely eyed and welled oiled criminal unit in under 30 days while all of them, in one form or another, are still processing and dealing with their grief over losing the loves of their respective lives.   

One of the film's strongest assets is the superb writing that fully delineates these women as compellingly layered anti-heroes, all with their share of faults and vulnerabilities.  Linda in particular is an economically struggling mother of two whose very business is essentially ruined overnight by the death of her husband and his shady dealings before his passing.  Veronica, more financially well off, has to rise above her initial station as a relatively helpless and insecure widow and into a ferociously empowered team leader that will not back down to any setback.  Then there's Alice, arguably the most fascinating of all these women, who suffered through various bouts of domestic abuse at the hands of her dead husband who then is convinced by her frighteningly domineering mother (an imposing Jackie Weaver) to use her sex appeal and try prostitution to pay the bills.  It becomes abundantly clear why all of these beleaguered women find the allure of Veronica's robbery plans and potential for profit so enticing. 

WIDOWS seems so much more ambitious, as mentioned, than average run-of-the-mill heist thrillers.  We see conventional elements of the team coming together to hatch their plan and train for the mission to come, but McQueen's film is not a joyously uplifting tale of cool and slick criminals that are simply out for a big score.  No, the widows here engage in their scheme for self preservation first and foremost and to finally usurp power over corrupt men that once had unbreakable power over them.  There just seems to be larger stakes at play for Veronica and her clan than simply money.  Their planned heist is a manner to stick it to those who relish in propping up societal gender inequities, not to mention that it'll also prove to these same men not to underestimate them for - as Veronica once puts it - "having the balls to pull it off."  Beyond gender politics, WIDOWS also opens a window up to racial and class divide and the senselessness of politicians like Jack trying to live up to the impossibly corrupt standards propped up by his once ruthless parent, and how his thirst for power mirrors that of Jamal and Veronica's team and how all of these seemingly unrelated personas come unavoidably and violently together.  There's a sheer density to the narrative drive in WIDOWS that gives it an epic dramatic sweep and scope. 

All of the performances on display are Oscar caliber, and Davis shows - as she's proven time and time again - how well she can play characters of raw intensity, yet fragility all at the same time.  Also turning in admirable work is Rodriguez, who relays here how good she can be on screen in dramatic films when not having her spotlight blemished by the sausage fest that is the FAST AND FURIOUS films.  One of the film's superb standouts is Debicki, a six-foot-plus porcelain beauty who has the trickiest arc in WIDOWS going from wounded and victimized housewife to a teeth and fist clenched force of gun touting change.  Joining these women is Cynthia Erivo's Belle, who appears late in the proceedings as a beautician that finds herself drawn into Veronica's plans and becomes an unlikely getaway driver for the team.  Erivo might also be the only other actor in this film that has the charisma necessary to win a stare down with Davis in the scenes they share. 

Of course, one should not forget McQueen's virtuoso direction on display here, who gives WIDOWS its own unique stylistic flavor that helps segregate itself wide apart from a frankly overcrowded genre pack.  The opening section of the film - highlighting Harry's team going down, segueing back and forth from it to the introductions of these men and their soon-to-be widows - is a masterpiece of editorial economy.  McQueen also has other aesthetic tricks up his sleeves, employing unique cinematography and some unorthodox shot compositions and juxtapositions.  One sequence is a quietly rendered showstopper, which shows Farrell's amoral politician conjure up his own nefarious schemes on a car ride from a rally.  Most movies would show the characters in the car during their journey, but McQueen keeps his camera outside of it for what appears to be a glorious one shot long take of the environment around the car.  In just a few minutes we see this vehicle leave the most impoverished areas of Chicago to enter the most affluent.  Not many other filmmakers are talented enough to let their direction of small scale sequences help prop up and embellish a film's themes like what McQueen does here.   

Come to think of it, how many other heist thrillers have the added contextual layer of serving as a piece of sobering social, political, and gender commentary?  That's what ultimately what makes WIDOWS so unendingly riveting; McQueen has crafted a picture that works sensationally well as a consummately produced piece of pulpy entertainment that also manages to dive head on into some serious issues and subject matter that allows for it to rise to the level of macabre tragedy.  In a relative age when so many heist films are light-hearted and spirited affairs, it's so bloody uncommon to see ones that mercilessly cut right down to the bone and shed light on many grim realities of the day.  I ultimately love it when directors find ways to make well worn movie conventions and stories feel revitalizingly alive and new, and after watching what McQueen has achieved in WIDOWS I'm dying to see him sink his teeth into his next uncharted genre assignment.  

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