SHOULD I SEE IT?
Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen reminds us that he is really good at making movies and telling complex stories.
Viola Davis is the standout, but she never overshadows a talented group of actors around her who all complement one another expertly well.
Full of twists and turns, Widows may flirt with overthinking things a bit, but as a heist film with bigger aspirations, it largely scores many a success.
The film may play a little too melodramatic and struggle with tone and theme for more discerning viewers.
A few of the twists and turns may cause some viewers to throw up their hands.
Some have complained that for a film that falls on the side of female empowerment, it may not practice what it preaches.
After directing the 2013 Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave, writer/director Steve McQueen ends a five-year sabbatical from the big screen with Widows, a collaboration with writer Gillian Flynn that brings several new perspectives into a rather conventional heist story. With a tremendous cast, led by the masterful Viola Davis, Widows payloads a lot of surprises, including some cleverly concocted twists and turns, but also redefines itself in scene after scene and moment after moment.
The source material, a 12-episode British crime drama, created by Lydia LaPlante, which ran from 1983-1985, feels robust and massive when contemplating it as a cinematic adaptation. McQueen and Flynn navigate through LaPlante’s program with surgical precision, pushing through a lot of plot and story, but also allowing for a modernized look at issues of race, class, gender politics, loyalty, trust, and the sacrificial nature of love in all forms.
Opening with a breathtaking action sequence, we witness the fateful last heist for a quartet of serial bank robbers. Harry (Liam Neeson) is the orchestrator with some high-level political connections, Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) has a gambling addiction, Florek (Jon Bernthal) is arrogant and an abuser of women, while Jimmy (Coburn Goss) is a new father, trying to pivot away from crime towards a calmer, family life.
When things turn deadly for the team, and each man’s wife learns of her husband’s demise, everything begins to fall apart for the surviving widows. Veronica (Davis) must quickly come to terms with what Harry’s death means for her safety and immediate future. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) soon understands that her clothing store was financed, in part, by Carlos’ gambling wins and may also be collateral in collecting on his outstanding debts. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) is lost, alone, and has no healthy supports around her, while Amanda (Carrie Coon) is suddenly a single mother to a four-month-old infant.
The mourning comes to an end abruptly for Veronica, when she is paid a visit by alderman candidate Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Aware but silent on his thievery, she learns that Harry and his team stole $2 million from Jamal and it is missing. He desperately needs the money to try and defeat Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) in an upcoming election. Jack is trying to uphold the family’s tradition: His retiring father (Robert Duvall) has been the incumbent alderman in their ward for decades.
The political underpinnings of Widows are, perhaps, the most underbaked portion of the film, though Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) offers a nasty, vicious turn as Jatemme, Jamal’s brother and surrogate henchman who slinks around behind-the-scenes to take care of Jamal’s perceived enemies, mixing macabre humor and psychopathic intensity to the film’s first hour.
Efforts to bring the widows together are not as initially successful as Veronica hopes, and she finds resistance from Linda and Alice initially. Realizing that there is one final heist in the journal left behind by her husband, we may recognize that the women will eventually work together, but how they form, and the twists and turns of all that brings them together, keep us guessing every step of the way.
Davis shines, largely as expected, brilliantly portraying a natural leader without overshadowing the other actresses around her. Falling in line behind Veronica, Linda and Alice end up defining their reasons for participating in the heist on their own terms. The addition of Belle (Cynthia Erivo), Linda’s babysitter, proves clever, as Flynn and McQueen provide excellent exposition through some non-linear storytelling, while topical dialogue holds us on the edge of our seats.
McQueen’s trusted cinematographer, Sean Bobbit, stylishly shoots a terrific looking film, capturing the eloquence of a rich, lavish lifestyle, down to the grit and grime of a campaign office, or a nude-model adorned secret hideout the women adopt from their husbands for their headquarters.
With fantastic performances throughout, including an unhinged, off-the-rails Robert Duvall performance that nearly steals the show, Widows is a fascinating little piece of pulp fiction. And though it indulges a little bit of fantastical grandstanding and violent outcomes, Flynn and McQueen have offered us something of a conversation starter on why people can sometimes will themselves to do things and accept things they know could either get them in serious trouble, or tolerate dishonest people doing dishonest things.
While the story between the alderman candidates is the weakest element of Widows, one scene stands out.
Jack is holding a press event for his non-profit company, Minority Women Can Work, and gets interrogated from the audience by a news reporter asking some direct and targeted questions. Rushing to get off stage and leave his event unscathed, the audience, largely comprised of persons of color, begin to shake their heads and doubt the promises made by Jack from the stage.
As Widows unspools its tightly wound melodrama of revenge and betrayal, survival and resourcefulness, we also see a burgeoning story of women concurrently presenting as decisive and strong, yet still used as pawns within a trumped-up message of tokenism and civic responsibility.
Widows can be summarized in a lot of different ways, but perhaps its biggest surprise as a study of what it means to be a woman in a world that toys with equality like a puppet on a string, Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen may have made this heist movie become something much, much more.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson, Garret Dillahunt, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Jon Bernthal, Coburn Goss, Lukas Haas, Adepero Oduye.
Director: Steve McQueen
Written by: Gillian Flynn, Steve McQueen
Adapted from the British television series, “Widows”, created by Lynda La Plante
Release Date: November 16, 2018
20th Century Fox