by Alan Yudman
If you are going into WIDOWS thinking it’s a version of the OCEAN’S franchise, you are going to be disappointed. But you also should be pleasantly surprised. While WIDOWS has none of the humorous banter, male bonding or cheeky sexuality of the OCEAN’S movies, it has something much more— stakes and real drama.
The movie begins by cutting back and forth between two scenes— husband and wife, Viola Davis and Liam Neeson waking up in bed and getting ready for the day, and Neeson and his crew pulling off a robbery. Everything goes sideways during the crime and everyone is killed in a shootout with the cops. That’s where the WIDOWS get their name. Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez and Carrie Coon all lose their husbands (or boyfriends, sometimes it isn’t quite clear, but it’s also not very important). Here’s where the intrigue of the plot really draws you in. There is political intrigue that ties into the heist story. Collin Farrell and Brian Tyree Henry are squaring off in a Chicago Alderman race. The seat was held by Farrell’s dad (Robert Duvall) and his dad before him and so on. Henry is some kind of gangster who has a reputation but no criminal record. His brother (Daniel Kaluuya) is his brutal enforcer. Apparently Neeson’s crew was stealing campaign money from Henry. And that’s where I’m going to stop pulling on that thread so I don’t give too much away.
Henry wants his money back and tells Davis to get it. He doesn’t care how. Sell her stuff, sell herself. Her husband took from him and he wants payback. Then we discover Neeson has left Davis a key to a safe deposit box— inside is a book that is basically a diary of all his crimes past, present and future. She sees a way out. Do Neeson’s next job. Take the money and pay Henry back. So she recruits Debicki and Rodriguez to help her. Eventually they recruit Cynthia Erivo to help them fill out the crew. Again, stopping here. You just have to see it yourself.
Steve McQueen has taken this genre to the next level. The heist is merely a framework for the real story about corrupt politicians, Chicago violence and moving on after tragedy and betrayal. He and co-writer Gillian Flynn chose a slow burn. Things are revealed in painstaking fashion. We learn all we need to know about one situation before we are served the next nugget. It is refreshing to be drawn into a heist movie in this way. Most of the time we know what the motivation is immediately, then the rest of the movie is about the planning and execution. That’s not what is going on here.
McQueen’s direction is stellar. Davis is scared and in pain, and depending on the positioning of the camera and setting of the scene we are either let in or kept at a distance, depending on the demands of the story.
There are strong performances all around. Davis is on the edge and you feel it in the way she runs the crew, yet seems completely untethered at the same time. Debicki and Rodriguez are great, but Debiicki is stellar. Her turn from abused girlfriend/wife to powerful woman is remarkable. Farrell as a corrupt politician trying to escape his father’s corrupt shadow does great work and is it never a pleasure to see Duvall? I think the answer is no. Erivo is also a wonder. And Kaluuya displays a true gift for playing a brutal, menacing villain. SAG should nominate this film for best ensemble. And it probably should win.
The score by Hans Zimmer is perfect and the soundtrack fits every seen (doesn’t hurt that Nina Simone is included). Special kudos to the sound design team also.
There are some backstories that go unexplained and you may wonder what some of those are. But it really does nothing to diminish the intrigue. That is a very minor complaint.
WIDOWS is a great action movie, but it is so much more than that. The story, the acting, the satisfyingly twisty plot all combine to make this film a must see.