'Widows' review: Viola Davis pulls off a very un-'Ocean's'-like heist
When their husbands are killed, these widows have to find a way to pay off the debts from their husbands' crimes. USA TODAY
A righteous Viola Davis leads a group of desperate women to carry out a job left behind by their dead criminal husbands in this savage and artful heist film.
The words “rip-roaring heist flick starring Viola Davis as a righteous avenging angel” bring neither director Steve McQueen nor writer Gillian Flynn to mind, and especially not the two together.
McQueen’s work (“12 Years a Slave,” “Shame”) is punishing and severe with an unflinching focus trained on men pushed to physical and psychological extremes. Flynn’s work (“Gone Girl,” “Sharp Objects”) trends ripe and artfully lurid, rich with unapologetically flawed female characters.
In “Widows,” the marriage of their disparate sensibilities proves a rewarding one, each tempering the other’s bad habits in a collaborative script that achieves a delicious if messy dramatic alchemy. This is the most fun McQueen has ever been – not a high bar to clear, given his particular brand of misery porn – but that fun still comes with a bullet.
A hail of bullets, really, during a job gone wrong. Old-school criminal mastermind Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew are incinerated by a SWAT team, leaving behind a gaggle of grieving widows. Harry’s wife, Veronica (Davis), reeling from the loss, is hobbled by another gut punch, when an avaricious politician running for local office demands she make good on $2 million her dead husband stole from him.
That is a lot even for a woman as resourceful as Veronica, but she soon hatches a plan after discovering a notebook her husband left behind, containing all the pieces necessary to pull off the perfect heist. She enlists the help of the other widows: Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), a single mother whose husband’s debt wiped out her small business, and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), a sylphlike beauty turned reluctant escort.
You’ll find none of the slickness of an “Ocean's” heist movie here. These are desperate women turned criminal by circumstance. At every moment, their plan is balanced on a razor’s edge.
As faults go, there are far worse than having too much ambition, and a touch too much intelligence than the material calls for. “Widows” works best as a slow-burn thriller, a masterclass of patient reveals and cleverly withheld information (which, as any fan of her knows, are Flynn’s hallmarks). But “Widows” has more to say, touching on the topics of generational power, the dynamics of race in politics and marriage, the institutional racism present in police violence. It’s too much crammed into too limited a space. For all the screen time devoted to the intricacies of hyper-local Chicago politics, its machinations and motivations are still murky.
The connective tissue between these elements is stretched taut, but never breaks. And even when the pacing stumbles, ‘Widows’ is elevated by McQueen’s virtuosic directing. His visual motifs are striking, playing with mirrors and reflections to make subliminal suggestions about the characters’ inner dualities. The camera operates with balletic grace through finely choreographed long shots, pausing with whisper-delicate focus on emotive faces.
Everyone on screen clearly relishes the opportunity to go all-in under McQueen’s exacting eye (his last film, after all, garnered three acting Oscar nomination). Daniel Kaluuya rattles as a vicious henchman delighting in sociopathic cruelty. Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall disgust as a father-son political dynasty made hollow by money and power. Even Neeson, whose story is told largely in flashback, is a striking presence, a man toeing the line between domesticity and terror.
But Davis is a force of nature. Veronica’s grief goes on a journey, molten and destructive in the immediate wake of her loss, hardened and igneous at the end, immovable and not to be bargained with. Veronica is a woman torn, held together by grit and guts. She deserves every bit of her hard-won empowerment.
Davis does, too.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter.com/BabsVan.
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‘Widows,’ 4 stars
Director: Steve McQueen.
Cast: Viola Davis, Liam Neeson, Michelle Rodriguez, Colin Farrell.
Rating: R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual content/nudity.
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