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Friday, December 28, 2018

Review: Widows (2018)

* * * 1/2

Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell

Widows is more than the movie that you might be expecting, which stands to reason since it's directed by Steve McQueen, who is known for art films (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave) rather than crowd pleasers. Widows is, perhaps, the happy medium between the two. It's a heist thriller of no small amount of skill, filled with tension and action and reliant on some of the familiar tropes of the genre, but it's also a character piece about four women who are underestimated by everyone around them. Only three of them are widows (there is a fourth widow, but she takes a different path), but they are all women that the men around them take for granted can be walked all over. Now is the time of year when the studios release the last of their great big blockbusters for the year and the last of their great big award hopefuls, which might leave little time left to catch up on films that have already been in release for several weeks, but Widows is a movie worth making the time for.

The movie begins with a heist that goes wrong, killing Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew and burning up the money they had absconded with. The money belonged to Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a gangster who is looking to get out of the crime life by running for election as alderman of Chicago's south side, where he's up against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the scion of a political dynasty. Needing the money to finance his campaign, Manning pays a visit to Rawlings' widow, Veronica (Viola Davis), and gives her a timeline in which she can return the money to him. Lacking in assets that can be liquidated to pay him and having found her husband's notebook, in which he wrote out detailed plans for his next heist, Veronica decides to carry out her husband's next job, enlisting/threatening Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), the widows of two members of the crew, to help her. The fourth widow, Amanda (Carrie Coon), doesn't answer Veronica's call and when Veronica learns that she's been left with an infant to raise on her own, she decides not to pull her into the scheme.

At first glance, these women are ill-suited for the task they've assigned themselves. Veronica is a smart woman, but she's used to giving orders for things to be done, rather than doing things for herself, having lived the high life on the proceeds of her husband's crimes. Linda has been blindsided by the fact that her husband so badly mismanaged their money that even the legitimate source of their income - her store - has been swept out from under her, leaving her on the verge of losing her home and having no way to support her kids. Alice, having been raised by her rattle snake of a mother (Jacki Weaver in the sort of role that proves that there truly are no small roles, only small actors, given how much she makes of it) to be reliant on a man for everything, seems capable of bringing nothing to the table at first, but arguably comes the furthest as she invents new tools for herself that allow her to cut the corners she can't negotiate on her own. Increasingly aware that they'll be unable to pull the heist off without a fourth person, they then enlist Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a single mother who never stops moving as she takes every money making job that she can get, running from one to the next as she struggles to make ends meet.

Widows is a heist movie complete with the sorts of scenes you expect from the genre - the training sequences, scenes where the plan is discussed and dissected, the scenes where everything seems to go wrong - but in many ways the mechanics of the plot are secondary. It is much more concerned with exploring the characters and the context of their lives, from the greater context of the story's Chicago setting - where in one scene, the film's camera planted on the hood of Mulligan's car, we're made to see how poverty and wealth, the exploited and the exploiters, live side by side separated by only a few blocks - to the personal context of each of the women, who have nothing in common save the fact that the people around them (or, more specifically, the men around them) feel entitled to take from them with the expectation that they will not fight back. The climactic scene (which I'll do my best not to spoil) is the best example of this theme, reminiscent of the climax of last year's Wind River in that both involve a man quite literally whining and crying about how he isn't getting his way, demanding sympathy that ignores all the harm he's done to a woman because, hey, a woman's life matters much less than a man's feelings of self-worth and security, right?

Widows was written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn, who have adapted it from a British TV series of the same name, and the screenplay does an excellent job of building out, establishing the characters as "types" and then developing them through scenes that reveal a great deal about them without having to explicitly spell those things out through exposition. The actors - a veritable dream team of talent that also includes Robert Duvall and Daniel Kaluuya - take that ground work and run with it, giving the film terrific performances from top to bottom. Davis is impeccable, as she always is, as the icy but determined Veronica and Farrell adds another performance to the growing list of evidence that he was always meant to be one of our most reliable character actors, playing a man who is the very embodiment of every kind of privilege a person can have, a man who is practically handed power on a silver platter and can do nothing but complain that he was never given a choice about whether or not to take it. The standout, however, is Debicki, an actress who is apparently 10 feet tall judging by the way that she towers over everyone else in the film and who brings a heady mix of vulnerability and self-possession to Alice. No one expects anything from her, including herself, but she's the story's dark horse. Underestimate her at your peril.

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