Viola Davis continues to perform on a level all her own in Steve McQueen’s taut and thrilling Widows. A socio-political heart pounding heist, McQueen demonstrates his impressive versatility with this 12 Years a Slave follow up, proving that he can and will tackle any subject matter that calls to him and in Davis he’s found a perfectly suited dance partner. Reinvigorating the heist genre with overwhelming tension and stakes that matter and make you care for the characters along with character work and growth that is real and earned, Widows for it’s limited amount of actual action is one of the most actively exciting films of the year.
Following the death of her husband and his crew in a fiery shoot out we watch as Davis’s Veronica deals with the aftermath, specifically, the debt her husband left in his wake. With the politician Jamal Manning (a charismatic Brian Tyree Henry) and his violent brother (played by Daniel Kaluuya) threatening her, she locates the widows of the crew who agree to help in executing the last heist he’d left behind in order to pay up and walk away with enough money to rebuild their tethering lives.
Despite playing a large part in the set up, the men in Widows hardly factor in to the majority of the growth that happens between the lead cast, refreshing in a genre dominated by women being bolstered or shut down by the men in the room (or behind the camera). McQueen and writer Gillian Flynn however allow the women to domineer with their own righteous agency, their own crumbling facades and their worries and fears that ring large and true in the background of every dangerous step forward that they take. Henry, Kaluuya, Liam Neeson and Colin Farrell are terrific in their roles as foils who do little more than underestimate and devalue the Veronica and co., more concerned with the identities they’ve been forced into a climbed atop of than the repercussion so their nearsighted misogyny that allows the widows in question a fighting chance.
The film is so much more than the heist though which is what makes for such adrenaline pumping fare, never content to simply wait for the fast paced action to start up and instead concerned primarily with the manner in which then characters conduct themselves in getting to that point. Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo are strong as single mothers trying to get by but it’s Elizabeth Debicki as Alice and, of course, Davis, who walk away the most triumphant in the subtleties they imbue Alice and Veronica with, giving us ample access to work our way under their skin to understand their motives. Debicki is often called upon to be a source of humor but as someone who has faced abuse at the hands of everyone who has ever claimed to love her in the past, her evolution is one of the most evocative as she chooses to take control over her own life.
Davis is tremendous, as has become customary, allowing the fatigue of Veronica to show only in hunched shoulders and stalled steps but also her steely eyed resolve in clipped words and pointed looks. She is, undoubtedly, one of the finest actresses of our time and in Widows she simply builds on a resume already so rich and expressive in quality.
For McQueen this may have seemed a surprising side step, follow up his Oscar win with a film heavily drenched in the possibility of genre trappings but he manages to subvert all that we know about this style of film, injecting just enough of his poignant and powerful point of view to render his audience wholly riveted. He and cinematographer Sean Bobbit team up yet again and together they create lasting imagery, from a clinical look at economic disparity as a man of privilege whines behind tinted windows, to Debicki’s prone figure standing tall against a city full of possibilities, her face reflected back to her. In particular they derive emotive power any moment where Davis is swallowed by the empty, pristine space surrounding her, completely cut off from a world she once thought she knew, buried by the emptiness that her husband so unceremoniously left behind. The imagery is crisp and to the point as McQueen and Bobbitt acutely draw the eye to the most important aspect of any shot.
If anything we could’ve spent more time in the third act where the action is accelerated and consequences become all the more prevalent in the lives of these women, their relationships shallow but sturdy with a common goal, no matter the ways in which they materialized. Flynn’s script is air tight, wasting no scene and leaving no plot holes and pacing the drama so that each time a new development or puzzle piece of Veronica’s tragic past is revealed in adds to the overall momentum.
McQueen and Davis are a formidable team, made that much stronger by visual and narrative storytellers as well as able performers that surround them. Widows has a commendable duality where it’s able to be fun but not forgettable and exciting without being mindless fluff. It showcases everything its main players can do, a stage for a highly entertaining story while shining a spotlight on all the working gears that came together to create something superbly crafted. Widows is exemplary filmmaking that perfectly encapsulates what happens when a filmmaker of a certain caliber tackles something unexpected.
This is a reprint from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival