Widows (United States/United Kingdom, 2018)

November 14, 2018
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Widows Poster

Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) is a career criminal – a thief so meticulous that he has operated for thirty years without being caught. He plans each job ahead, writing all the details in a notebook, and leaves nothing to chance. But fate catches up to everyone and Harry is no exception. When Widows opens, he’s in trouble. Things haven’t gone well on the latest job and one of his crew is lying bleeding on the floor of a van while the other two try to staunch the flow. For these men, it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire – literally. The movie’s title, based a novel by Lynda La Plante, gives a clue as to their eventual fate.

Widows isn’t about Harry and his three compatriots. It’s about the four women they leave behind. Played by Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Carrie Coon, this is a conventional heist film buried under layers of intricate plot twists and social commentary. For Steve McQueen, who has spent a career crafting powerful dramatic stories (including the Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave), this represents his first foray into thriller territory. He co-wrote the screenplay with Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and the resulting script offers the seriousness one anticipates from McQueen and the switchbacks and turns one expects from Flynn.

Like most heist films, Widows doesn’t hold up well to careful examination. The plot holes are numerous. (Much as I might like to, I can’t discuss any without dropping major spoilers, which I won’t do.) However – and this is a crucial element to any “refrigerator movie” – most of these aren’t apparent “in the moment.” McQueen is a skillful craftsman and is able to effectively obfuscate gaps in logic while the movie is playing. It’s only afterward, when you’re re-assembling things in your mind, that the flaws emerge.

If Widows was “just” a heist movie, it would be fun but inconsequential. Narrative elements related to female empowerment and social injustice add layers to this film that enrich the subtext. Three of the four widows – Harry’s wife, Veronica (Davis), along with Linda (Rodriguez) and Alice (Debicki) – are left financially strapped once bereft of their husbands’ ill-gotten incomes. For Veronica, it’s worse. Harry’s latest victim – gangster-turned-politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) – expects Veronica to provide $2 million in restitution or he’ll let loose his sociopath brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), to extract the payment in flesh. She has Harry’s notebook, however, with the details of his next planned job, and recruits those left behind by his recent debacle to help her pull it off. The all-female crime team, which adds a fourth member in the person of their driver, Belle (Cynthia Erivo), might recall the group in Ocean’s Eight but they are, to a woman, more interesting. Armed robbery might be a man’s game but they intend to prove that they can do it equally as well, if not better, than their dead husbands.

There’s an element of gravitas in the women’s situations. In addition to facing a threat to her life, Veronica must deal with unsavory revelations about her husband. She’s a serious person who rarely cracks a smile and, despite her seeming confidence, she knows she’s in way over her head. When Jatemme murders someone to prove a point, she recognizes how grave the situation is. Meanwhile, Linda must cope with caring for two young children after her shop is sold out from under her to pay her late husband’s debts. And Alice dabbles in high end prostitution (as a “sugar baby”) to make a living.

All of this plays out against the backdrop of a Chicago alderman’s race that pits Jamal against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the son of longtime powerbroker, Tom (Robert Duvall), who is set up as a thinly-disguised avatar for Donald Trump. These two engage in the dirtiest of politics and there are times when the screenplay loses its way by focusing too much on their parries and counterstrikes (such as when they are both shown to court the endorsement of the pastor of a local church). Harry was a known “associate” of Jack’s which amplifies the antagonism between Jamal and Veronica.

The acting is strong across-the-board. At the top is Viola Davis, who has never given a bad performance and may again garner Oscar attention for infusing Veronica with determination in the face of seemingly crushing circumstances. Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki, although in supporting roles, are given moments to shine. Colin Farrell uses his natural charm, charisma, and good looks to hide a smarmy and morally bankrupt character. Veterans Robert Duvall and Liam Neeson leave strong impressions in limited roles. And Daniel Kaluuya shows his range – after playing the trapped victim in Get Out, he turns on the vileness to craft a truly evil personality here.

Widows is dark, gritty, and grim. Most heist movies are assembled as lighthearted fun, but this one oozes solemnity. Yet the movie delivers; it’s satisfying and offers a fuller meal than one normally expects from a seemingly simple premise (the actual heist isn’t all that complicated nor does its execution absorb much screen time). But don’t expect many laughs and be aware that the tone is a match to what we’ve come to expect from the director’s oeuvre. Not unlike Spike Lee with BlacKkKlansman, McQueen achieves his aim of using a genre framework to advance serious themes. That ambition, rather than the ordinariness of the central criminal enterprise, is what makes Widows an uncommonly good thriller.

Widows (United States/United Kingdom, 2018)

Run Time: 2:09
U.S. Release Date: 2018-11-16
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1