MOVIE REVIEW: Widows
Special Presentation of the 54th Chicago International Film Festival
Steve McQueen’s crime drama Widows take on a tone 90% of other heist films cannot or do not want to handle. Too many films of this discipline, from the works of Steven Soderbergh on up to Quentin Tarantino, want to invincibly romanticize the proceedings with a fun gear for escapism. Widows punches that notion in the face with stone cold seriousness, which is right where this film belongs. The perilous risk of it all leaves no Robin Hood or Danny Ocean joy. Instead, the enthrallment is watching all involved rise to the challenge and pull it all off.
Kicking something flaky and flimsy like Ocean’s 8 to the curb, the Shame and 12 Years a Slave Oscar winner has assembled a dauntless ensemble cast lead by the dynamic female trio of Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, and Michelle Rodriguez. Rooted in the thinly and sinfully fabricated dermal and subcutaneous layers of Chicago, Widows wields an effeminate brawn and sly intelligence working to stoke a masterful slow burn. The film’s bold gravity constricts us wonderfully for one of the most visceral crime films of recent memory and one of the best films of 2018.
The focused Fences Oscar winner, lank Australian The Man from U.N.C.L.E. villainess, and Fast & Furious alum are Veronica Rawlings, Alice Gunner, and Linda Perelli. They are three of the four surviving wives from a tight-knit team of thieves (Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Coburn Goss) led by Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) who were killed by Chicago Police in a standoff maelstrom of gunfire and explosions. Each begin as strangers who could not come from more different backgrounds despite their previously unknown spousal connections. All three, however, see their meal tickets end and the debts pile up. If mourning wasn’t enough, the worse creditor to come calling is Jamal Manning (Atlanta series player Brian Tyree Henry), the kingpin mark of Harry’s failed job.
LESSON #1: STAYING IN POWER WITH POWER — Manning, backed by his sadistic brother Jatemme (Get Out star and Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya), lost $2 million that was the amassed financial nest egg for his political campaign to become a South Side alderman. The criminal heavy’s cross-ticket opponent is the slick and rich third generation politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) who is looking to take over for his ailing father Tom (an acidic Robert Duvall) and continue the ambivalently oppressive neighborhood control that has been in the Mulligan family for over sixty years. For all of his supposed clout and socioeconomic dominance, Jack finds himself slipping in the polls of public favor and seeks his own angles to eliminate the Mannings. Expect heads to butt plenty.
Jamal threatens the wealthy Veronica and gives her a week to liquidate her assets in order to recoup the lost millions. Unable to do so, her desperate resolve becomes inspired by a little MacGuffin, namely Harry’s discovered journal of meticulous robbery ideas, a little black book of sorts that could slam prison doors on the named names or open other doors of lucrative opportunities. Veronica reaches out to Alice and Linda with the proposition fighting back against the Mannings and the Mulligans with a reinvigorating score of their own. The difficult hurdle is that all three ladies, and Linda’s enlisted help Belle (Tony winner Cynthia Erivo), are far from professional criminals. A fourth wife with young children (Carrie Coon) remains on the sidelines. Confidence, distrust, security, and motivations all make the ticking clock that much louder and necessary success more urgent.
As cinematic compass swirls this heist north and south, the entirety of this hugely talented cast of cross-wearing sinners all find themselves looking up to two women, one a sculpture of excellence and the other other a newer discovery of potential. Viola Davis channels a range of emotions unmatched by most of her Hollywood peers and contemporaries, male or female. Move over Meryl Streep. Viola is queen. Become convinced, as many others already have, that there is nothing that woman cannot emote with convincing power and conviction. Next to her is the dramatic surprise embodied by Elizabeth Debicki. Languishing through the worst circumstances among the embattled ladies, her Alice becomes the heart and soul of the steely narrative. Elizabeth elicits your tears and cheers while Viola turns the gears and rattles the fears.
The edgy and towering scope of Widows beyond the performances are signature Steve McQueen, wearing his astute foreigner’s lens. Seemingly the entire litany of seedy domestic ripped-from-the-headlines urban crime stereotypes and nepotistic political touchpoint are distilled to their ferocious essence and lathered on Chicago’s namesake broad shoulders away from the tourist traps. When you see a campaign headquarters set in a real church basement next to a shady Lawndale liquor store or watch in clever real-time Farrell’s reptilian suit drive from a derelict vacant lot campaign stump speech to a gated mansion in mere moments, viewers will see the proximity of its waiting dangers. That ominous tone is made even more sinister by a dark Hans Zimmer score and remarkable editing that punctuates the twisted nerves. The sound editing alone morphs sound-to-sound for jarring scene transitions, rolling a sexual growl into a roaring engine or a perilous scream into a playful squeal from a different place.
LESSON #2: DON’T UNDERESTIMATE WOMEN — This newly formed rookie crew may be comprised of a housewife, a dress shop owner, an escort, an exercising babysitter, and a teacher union representative, but they are tougher than they let on within their complicated lives. They continue beyond “‘till death do us part.” Combining their feminine might together, once alpha wolf Veronica learns to treat them better, they only get stronger.
LESSON #3: YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW — Without fail and with no quarter, there is heap of this lesson landing upon the black-hatted, white-hatted, and drenched-in-gray characters of Widows. Violence begets violence and the same goes for wealth, trust, distrust, devotion, or the other principles that are held dear by these cinematic chess pieces. The comeuppances that collide here can smash diamonds.