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No Need to Mourn This Movie

Viola Davis
Viola Davis
20th Century Fox
 129 Minutes
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez   

There are two types of Hollywood heist movies. The first is the caper movie, like Logan Lucky, which is basically a puzzle to be solved involving intricate schemes to overcome seemingly impregnable defenses and security systems, and, in which no one really seems to take things too seriously. The second is the robbery movie, like Heat, which recognizes that stealing things at gunpoint is serious business with potentially serious consequences. I mention this dichotomy because, this year, we’ve seen two different heist films with the same central premise, namely, the fact that the crews in each movie are all-female. Yet, the two movies are very different. Ocean’s Eight is a caper film and a relatively trifling one at that, and the female lead cast is pretty much just a marketing hook. Steve McQueen’s far superior Widows, on the other hand, is a robbery movie that is as much about race and politics as about sex and theft, and in which the thieves’ gender is central to the entire story.


Widows was adopted from a 1980s English TV miniseries (actually two separate series) that has been updated by director Steve McQueen and screenwriter Gillian Flynn to present-day Chicago. A heist crew led by professional thief Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) steals two million dollars from gangster Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), but, in the aftermath, the thieves are trapped in a warehouse by the cops and die in an explosive shootout. The loss of the money really hurts Manning, who planned to use it to fund his political campaign to run for city alderman against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), son of the district’s longtime alderman, Tom (Robert Duvall), who is now retiring. As a result, Manning visits Rawlings’ widow, Veronica (Viola Davis), and threatens her, demanding that she raise the money any way possible and return it to him.


Fortunately, Veronica has a possible way out of her predicament. Harry kept a detailed notebook of his criminal plans that Veronica obtains from one of Harry’s old associates. Veronica realizes that, with the right crew of her own, she could pull off what Harry had intended as his next job. So, she recruits the widows of the other three dead robbers, correctly figuring that they would also be in dire straits financially. Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) is about to lose her clothing store to foreclosure due to her husband’s gambling debts. Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki) was also left broke by her abusive husband (Jon Bernthal), so much so that she agrees to her mother’s suggestion that she become a high-class escort to make ends meet. Only the fourth widow (Carrie Coon) declines because she has a new baby. Fortunately for Veronica, she finds an able replacement in Linda’s occasional babysitter, Belle (Cynthia Erivo).


Widows is only a little over two hours long, but it feels much longer, and I don’t mean that in the usual sense of the phrase. This movie does not drag; instead, the screenplay is a masterpiece of taut storytelling, with every scene having a purpose in what eventually becomes a very complex morality tale, any of whose subplots could easily have filled out a feature film of its own. Actually, the least interesting aspect of the film is the preparation for the robbery. In most heist movies, these preparations would be filmed as an elaborate montage, showing the women doing mysterious bits of business that the audience only pieces together at the last minute. Here, the preparations are more mundane but equally challenging. Alice’s attempt to buy guns proves a challenge until she relates a tale of woe to a fellow customer at a gun shop, while shopping for a van at an auto auction provides some of the film’s infrequent humor. The heist scheme is fairly clever, but it relies far more on street tactics than any kind of high-tech wizardry or con artistry.


The preparation for the robbery plays out against the movie’s ongoing political background. Again, many filmmakers would probably have relegated the Mannings and Mulligans to bit players, but, here, the struggle for control of one of the more impoverished areas of Chicago turns into a commentary on racial politics. Both Jamal Manning and his brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) are mobsters who will use political office as cover for their criminal enterprises. But, as Widows goes on, the audience realizes that what the Mannings want to do is just the same thing that the Mulligans have done for decades, skimming from city projects and using a newly launched minority business initiative as a means of “partnering” with small businesses and taking the lion’s share of the profits. Tom Mulligan’s overt racism is more than matched by Jatemme Manning’s sadistic brutality. Both Duvall and Kaluuya are terrific in these roles; in fact, Kaluuya might earn an Oscar nomination for a villainous role that recalls Richard Widmark’s debut in Touch of Evil. It’s hard to believe that he’s the same actor who was terrified last year in Get Out,


However, the name of the movie is Widows, not “crooked politicians,” so the focus is on the four robbers. The script takes its time showing how the three actual widows involved in the robbery were placed in bad situations by their husbands, and the film is about their journey to self-discovery. Elizabeth Debicki is the real discovery here, turning a character who’s an abused soft touch whose own mother wants to pimp her out into an increasingly more self-assured woman. Michelle Rodriguez, normally typecast as a badass, is far more vulnerable here, becoming the unlikely possible weak link in the crew. Sadly, the script doesn’t involve Cynthia Erivo more, but she has the same command presence she demonstrated last month in Bad Times at the El Royale. For an actress with no film experience, she’s made about as impressive a debut over just a few weeks as any in recent memory.


The real driving force behind Widows is Violet Davis’ performance as Veronica. She seems at first to be the prototypical sheltered wife, used to the good life in a luxury apartment and smart enough to know not to ask too many questions. But as she learns just what type of situation Harry left her in, she overcomes her initial shock and fear and gets tougher in scene after scene until she’s ready to slug it out with the Mannings and Mulligans toe to toe. She has played this type of role several times previously but does so in a less showy, but equally effective, manner as she does on her TV series, How to Get Away with Murder.


Director Steve McQueen eschews some of the obvious opportunities for flashy moments in favor of some more understated but highly effective ones. The death of Veronica and Harry’s son, alluded to on several occasions and finally shown, illustrates the shocking suddenness of senseless violence. On the other hand, a tracking shot following Jack Mulligan’s limo going from a campaign event in a decrepit vacant lot in a minority neighborhood on a two-minute drive, ending up at his own far tonier house in a better area, is a perfect commentary on modern-day urban Chicago.


Widows isn’t just a great thriller; it’s a great movie based on a typical thriller storyline. It has all the requisite element viewers come to expect in a thriller, but it is also a sharp examination of urban politics and problems and a character study of some well-developed characters who mature and get tougher from scene to scene. This complex mix of elements, superbly handled by director McQueen makes Widows one of the best films of the year.  

In this clip, Viola Davis goes over the details of the robbery with her crew.

Read other reviews of Widows: 

Widows (2018) on IMDb