TIFF Review: ‘WIDOWS’ seamlessly blends hard-hitting topics, heist thriller action and first-rate performances

James Cole Clay // Film Critic

WIDOWS

Rated R, 128 minutes.
Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Jon Bernthal, Robert Duvall and Liam Neeson

Steve McQueen is a visual artist who makes films when he’s got the itch to tell a story. Each of his projects – HUNGER, SHAME, 12 YEARS A SLAVE and now WIDOWS – depicts topics such as sex addiction, slavery and starvation. There’s a particular rawness to his work that few filmmakers are willing to tackle, and because of that, his films demand your attention.

While on the surface WIDOWS looks like your typical heist thriller (the odd marketing certainly makes it look that way), it isn’t exactly your safest bet. It’s a technically slick film about a group of women going up against some incredible odds (odds their husbands couldn’t defeat), but there’s much more that McQueen and Co. work into the fabric of the story.

McQueen’s visual sensibilities work in tandem with Gillian Flynn’s screenplay. It doubles as a story that not only hits hard but discusses the black experience in Chicago. This is a premium genre filmgoing experience that elevates its tropes while celebrating the melodrama in all its glory. The film has the intensity of Michael Mann’s HEAT and the gloominess of Denis Villeneuve’s PRISONERS. It’s an epic caper that adapts the 1980’s British TV show and works well as a crime saga that weaves in multiple storylines with ease.

Viola Davis stars as Veronica, a widow who takes fate into her own hands. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

WIDOWS opens with Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) and her husband Harry (Liam Neeson), intensely kissing in bed, embracing a quiet moment. The catch is he’s a major criminal and all this romanticism is about to be thrown out the door rather quickly. The film interrupts the idealism with shotgun shells exploding as Harry and his criminal outfit (including Jon Bernthal and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) are gunned down during a robbery gone awry. McQueen’s use of sound abruptly ending silent moments thrusts us into action sequences with awe.

Veronica knows very little – if anything – about Harry’s life and has been in the throes of mourning with Olivia, the world’s most memeable dog. But the truth begins to reveal itself when Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) steps into the picture. Jamal is a man with his own ambitions and is attempting to make the transition from crime boss to political candidate. He beats down Veronica’s palatia door looking for the $2 million Harry owed him before he died.

It’s remarkable watching Tyree-Henry develop with each role he has had over the past couple years. He hits a fever pitch as Jamal, throwing out calculated intensity to the camera. (Seriously, JOHN WICK has nothing on WIDOWS when it comes to constant fear for doggie danger.)

Scared within an inch of her life, Veronica tracks down the widows of Harry’s crew – Alice (a scene-stealing Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez, a bit of a miscast) – to finish the $5 million dollar job their late husbands couldn’t finish. The film is essentially a deadly game of capture the flag; whoever gets it first is either going to gain power, or escape. But all that depends on who can get to businessman Tom Mulligan’s safe full of
Money fastest (Colin Farrell) – it’s a battle of brain vs. brawn.

With this massive a cast, there are many pieces at play. The grandmaster of it all, however, is Jamal’s brother and enforcer, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya, who brings a cold assertiveness). Jatemme is the scariest kind of killer – he’s unbiased. Kaluuya spends the majority of the film slyly being sent on “errands,” relishing every second of pain he inflicts.

Penned in a corner, Veronica convinces the widows to band together, even if it means they’ll be seeing their husbands sooner than expected. Davis’ Veronica keeps her poker face on in every scene, staying cool and unflinching under pressure. Audiences also get a bit of insight into what’s going on behind her mask as well. It’s not one-dimensional character, that’s for sure.

Michelle Rodriguez, left, and the scene-stealing Elizabeth Debicki star in Twentieth Century Fox’s ‘WIDOWS.’ Photo Credit: Suzanne Tenner.

WIDOWS is the sharpest looking movie you’ll see all year. McQueen infuses a sweeping style that we’ve seen employed in his work before. With his bag of cinematic tricks, he keeps the film light on its feet as we quickly move from plot point to plot point, without losing any of the clarity.

There are so many heavily plotted thrillers that they lose their luster with long expositions. McQueen, on the other hand, has us fixated on what’s on screen, even if the camera maneuvers to where we are hearing Farrell’s voice explain the plot from inside a tinted vehicle and the shot doesn’t break for three minutes. Similar to what Villeneuve did with Sicario, McQueen is able to shockingly keep his audience engaged during the most quiet moments. There’s always a layer of intensity rising to their surface.

The cast has an embarrassment of riches, and each talent plays their part with ease. Flynn’s screenplay gives the tone a pulpy fun with a hard boiled calculation, and Davis expertly embraces this in her performance and seems to be having a blast doing it. Flynn (GONE GIRL, SHARP OBJECTS) gives each one of these infant criminals a voice in their own story; it’s sort of a re-birth for these women, who identified so deeply with the idea of marriage.

Debecki’s Alice is having the most trouble with her situation. Being with her partner is all that she knows. How Debicki shines amongst giants is impressive. While she’s a veteran in the entertainment business, her turn as Alice is arguably her breakout performance.

WIDOWS blends the aesthetics of a prestige with the escapist qualities of action, and the film never feels cheapened by either. This is a narrative that discusses Black Lives Matter, sexism, interracial marriage and feminism, and still manages to be the most fun theater-going experience of the year. It’s exactly the kind of studio movie audiences want.

[Grade: A-]

WIDOWS premiered on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. The Toronto International Film Festival will have encore screenings on 9/12 (P&I screening), 9/13 and 9/16. Visit tiff.net for more details on the showtimes. WIDOWS will release nationwide on Nov. 16, 2018 through Twentieth Century Fox.

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