Widows

Studio: 20th Century Fox
Directed by Steve McQueen

Nov 14, 2018 Web Exclusive
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Steve McQueen’s filmography is shaping up to be one of the most diverse, interesting collection of movies that can be attributed to a single director. His films have indie scene credibility for his meditative approaches to a variety of subject matter from prisoner rights (Hunger), sex addiction (Shame) and slavery in the United States (12 Years a Slave). So, when his next picture is a star-studded heist movie, does it mean he’s going big and broad for the sake of entertainment or are he and his crew bringing their sensitivities to this project to breathe new life into the genre?

For the most part, it’s absolutely (and thankfully) the latter. Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) just lost their husbands when they were killed by police while pulling off a heist of some magnitude. Things get complicated in the aftermath when Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a local man running for office, pays Veronica a visit. It turns out that the money stolen – that was subsequently blown up – belongs to him. One of the film’s many subplots involves Jamal’s decision to leave the overtly criminal life behind him for the equally shifty world of municipal politics. He’s a suit-and-tie, but he’s also a heavy with a toes still in the stream, so when he threatens Veronica she has no choice.

Veronica recruits Linda and Alice, but can’t immediately get hold of the fourth, Amanda (Carrie Coon). With the help of her deceased husband’s intricate notebook outlining past jobs, and a plan for one more, she enlists the duo to target what, in any other movie, would have been her husband’s “one last job.” It becomes her first (and likely only) heist she has to pull off both to survive and to prove they’re as capable as the never-ending boys club (a not-so-subtle jab at Hollywood in general).

It’s probably not surprising that Viola Davis anchors Widows, delivering a performance that is simultaneously tough as nails and extremely vulnerable without the duality ever feeling forced or awkward in an overtly performative way. Yes, there’s some melodrama – it’s a satisfyingly pulpy movie – but that doesn’t totally undercut the emotion.

Where the movie struggles is in staying afloat with the multitude of story threads populating its runtime. None are especially bad or extraneous, but they don’t all get the time to breathe that would fully flesh them out. Jamal Manning may be looking to leave the violence of the street behind him, but his brother and right-hand Jatemme (an outstanding Daniel Kaluuya) isn’t so eager to move on. Meanwhile, Jamal’s chief rival is Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), city councillor and son of storied politician Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall). Jack is conflicted about being an emblem of nepotism and of being in the political game at all. Then there are Linda and Alice. Linda lost her store after her husband died, and Alice lost her safety net despite also being a regular victim of domestic violence. Debicki plays Alice with a mixture of naiveté and desperation while also occasionally delivering her lines with well-timed comic force to cut the tension.

That doesn’t even bring in the glimpses of Veronica’s husband Harry (Liam Neeson) and their tragic backstory involving their dead son from years earlier. There are more, too. And they’re all compelling, which makes it slightly easier to overlook how thinly depicted they are. At just over two hours, Widows would have benefited from either being cut down and seeing a couple plotlines excised entirely or expanded into miniseries length.

The Mulligan story is the one that comes off as the least developed, and even it has its flourishes. Farrell’s accent will likely come under fire as distracting, but his performance is all in the eyes – his drained, exhausted eyes. It’s Duvall who drags it down, though, which is a shame. He just yells and sputters his lines in a legacy performance that doesn’t live up to the billing.

Still, it is thrilling to watch Veronica, Linda, and Alice go to work – especially once Belle (Cynthia Erivo) joins the crew.

By merely existing in this form, Widows is a victory (which is both wonderful and kind of sad). The cynical franchise exercises of the all-female Ghostbusters and the Sandra Bullock-led Ocean’s 8 have rubbed me the wrong way, not due to their content, exactly, but the approach. A studio taking an already established franchise led primarily by male actors and flipping the switch to essentially remake it with women in the key roles suggests studio heads don’t think an original story without a hook involving a familiar title or character will be successful. To call this Heat with women is such a backhanded comment to both films – and is a very lazy comparison – but it hasn’t stopped it from happening.  Hopefully, Widows proves this wrong because we need more movies for women to lead other than microwaved retreads.

Author rating: 7.5/10

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