Strong Steve McQueen Crime Drama Stars Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki
DIRECTED BY STEVE MCQUEEN/2018
Director Steve McQueen, who scored a Best Picture and Best Director Oscar with his film 12 Years a Slave, returns with the intense thriller Widows, based on Lynda La Plante’s book of the same title. The screenplay is by McQueen, along with Gillian Flynn, the author of Gone Girl, who is no stranger to twists and turns, of which this story has plenty. With a strong story and an all-star cast, Widows sets a high bar for films this fall. It’s a unique story that is smart, engaging, full of action, and features a strong female-led ensemble whose heist skills makes you immediately forget the disappointment that was Ocean’s 8, earlier this summer.
Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) has just robbed a very dangerous man named Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a man who leads his own unit selling drugs and carrying out other illegal activity around Chicago. As Harry and his crew, which includes Florek (Jon Bernthal), Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and Jimmy (Coburn Goss), are trying to get away, they are killed in a hail of gunfire as their getaway van explodes in a shootout with the cops. This leaves each of their widows, Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and Amanda (Carrie Coon), with nothing but debt, foreclosure, and very few options.
Jamal, however, doesn’t want to let bygones be bygones. In addition to trying to run for city alderman against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), a man who is running for his father’s seat (Robert Duvall), to keep the Mulligan’s third generation running the family business (which is controlling the business dealings of this poor precinct of Chicago to enrich themselves), Jamal wants his stolen money. Since it burned up with the van, Jamal pays a visit to Veronica, giving her one month to get the couple million that he is owed.
Not living the life of a thief like her husband, Veronica recruits the fellow widows of her husband’s crew to see if they can save themselves from Jamal’s promised wrath, and maybe find a way to get them out of their desperate financial situation following their husbands’ deaths. Also in play to join this group is a woman named Belle (Cynthia Erivo), who finds herself being drawn into this plan. With the need for quick cash, and some experience in crime, Belle is a potentially big find… or a potential liability.
The factor making this film absolutely work is Best Supporting Actress winner 2017, Viola Davis. Here she provides as layered of a performance as she did for her Academy award winning role in Fences, but even more impactful. From the opening scene, McQueen provides a fantastic three-dimensional look at just who this woman is, all brought home by Viola’s performance. We witness the vulnerable, loving side of Veronica as it relates to her husband, Harry. We also see the disconnect between who he is to her at home and the way she turns a blind eye to who he is professionally.
The screenplay doesn’t let Veronica get away with such dis-connectivity. Her enjoyment of their material possessions implicates her in whatever criminal Harry employed. As she and the fellow widows go further into the criminal rabbit hole to satisfy their husbands’ debt to Jamal Manning, the more we see this is true.
One of the best performances, along with Viola Davis’, is that of Elizabeth Debicki. When we are first introduced to her character Alice, she is shown to be just a beautiful and attractive wife of a criminal, who already is seen taking his share of physical abuse. We also see, though, a woman with real “fight”, who isn’t going to shrink away from standing up for herself. When she becomes a widow, we see that her mother, Agnieska (Jacki Weaver), is just as abusive to her daughter, even suggesting that she become an escort on a social hook-up type website in order to maintain the lifestyle she (they) are used to. Anything she endured by her husband, we get the sense, pales in comparison to what she probably endured growing up. As the film progresses, what looks like the weakest member of the team all of sudden becomes a true equal in every sense of the word, especially when she has to go toe to toe against Viola’s Veronica.
While the film is, on the surface, a heist film, it also deals with many other issues that absolutely resonate in our time. Issues like racism, sexism, political corruption, sexual exploitation, nepotism, greed, poverty, and effects of grief all take center stage in this script. Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen layer the script in such a way that allow these issues to be responsibly dealt with that feels natural to the story, with each reveal drawing the audience in further. It also provides lots of relevant commentary on these subjects without ever being preachy. The camera’s eye simply captures this gritty world, a reflection of the underbelly of our own, and gives us relatable characters who must learn to navigate it. Life is not fair, and Widows doesn’t seek to convince us otherwise.
One reviewer at my screening rightly commented that this was McQueen’s version of a Michael Mann film, ala Heat. This is a pretty accurate observation, although, I would add that Widows suffers a bit from being too long. Pacing is the one thing that slows down some of the momentum, though the overall film has a confidence to it that can be seen in each and every camera angle or vantage point offered to the audience, as the story unfolds. McQueen is clearly at the top of his game as a filmmaker, and with only some minor pacing issues to tighten up, we get a real sense of just how truly dangerous and exciting he is, and will continue to be. The cast more than delivers a gritty and raw contemporary story that deserves to be seen.