Widows and all the images you see in this review are owned by 20th Century Fox
Directed by Steve McQueen
Is it time for another cinematic confession? Alright, so I’ve never actually seen a Steve McQueen movie all the way through. I’ve seen bits and pieces of Shame and I haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave, but based on those films and what we’ve been shown of this one I get the feeling that I’m not gonna be the biggest fan of his work. What can I say? I’m not the biggest fan of overly oppressive mood pieces even if the subject matter justifies that tone, but unlike other kinds of movies of filmmakers that I’m not too fond of I’m rather open to what this guy has to say here because even if I don’t like what I see on screen at least I’m fairly confident that the director is trying to ENGAGE with their audience instead of completely alienating them (*cough* Eli Roth *cough*). Will this film be the perfect introduction to the director’s body of work, or did he already reach his peak and nothing else will quite measure up to it? Let’s find out!!
Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) is just having a TERRIBLE week! Not only did her husband (Liam Neeson) die in a horrible fiery explosion, two million dollars went completely up in smoke which she is now being held responsible for since said two million was STOLEN by Liam Neeson and his crew of crooks (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Jon Bernthal, and Coburn Goss) from a local gangster who’s the slightest bit miffed about all this. It’s made especially bad because said gangster Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) is also running for local office against the golden boy Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and could have used all that ill-gotten gain to fund his campaign; presumably through shady 501(c) groups considering where the money came from. Thanks, Citizens United! Anyway, him and his brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) have given Veronica a week to pay him back which is PROBABLY not all that feasible, but as luck would have it her husband left her a notebook that had detailed plans for their next heist; one that could not only pay back Jamal but will give her a nice payday to keep her afloat while she figures out what to do next with her life. She enlists the help of two of the widows, Linda and Alice (Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki) as well as Bell who is another person in need of some fast cash (Cynthia Erivo) to hopefully pull off this heist, though without any actual experience committing crimes, pulling guns, and breaking into places, their success seems dubious at best. Will Veronica and her slapdash crew of desperate widows manage to pull off such a dangerous heist? What exactly happened the night their husbands died, and could it have had anything to do with this plan that was left behind? Is it just me, or could this easily be an Amanda Waller prequel?
Well this movie certainly kicked a lot more ass than I expected! Seriously, the marketing of this film isn’t doing a great job of selling what this movie ACTUALLY is which is a taught (if slightly flabby on the margins) crime thriller with solid performances, an impressively layered narrative, and even a fair bit of humor to boot! Everything I saw leading up to this film led me to believe it would be nothing but a complete downer; something that every other critic out there will find beautiful and grand while I just pout about how mean the whole thing is. Thankfully that’s not the case and this is very much a crowd please; albeit in a less OVERT sense than a lot of big budget blockbusters out there. Sure it’ll take you on a journey, one that gets rather dark at points, but it never makes you feel like you’re wasting your time going on it because the only imaginable endpoint is falling off a cliff or dying of exposure which in this tortured metaphor means A LOUSY ENDING. This movie fires on all cylinders a heck of a lot more than plenty of other movies we’ve gotten this year, and while I probably enjoy the even MORE overtly fun movies of this genre like Oceans 8 more than this film here, it manages to walk such a fine line with unabashed confidence that I can’t help but admire it.
As I said, this movie is NOT what I was expecting which was something like Wind River or even Hereditary (ugh…); two movies that ended up, at least for me, completely buckling under the weight of their own… well, WEIGHTINESS. That’s not the case here at all. Sure, there’s a fair amount of tragedy in this and I’ll say that it MIGHT have overstepped into misery for the sake of it one or two times, but there’s ACTUAL fun to this! There are jokes to break the tension and outlandish plot twist to keep the intrigue up; not to mention how deft the narrative is at keeping the odds of their mission going well at JUST the right level so that you’re really unsure of just how it’ll all shake out. Beyond the heist the whole movie is building to however is a much bigger movie that follows a cross-section of Chicago’s inner workings which I think works rather well (especially with Collin Farrell being such a two faced bastard throughout the whole thing), but really the focus of this movie is on the widows, so how well do they work in here? Well there’s no doubt that Viola Davis is the star here and even manages to outshine Liam Neeson whenever he pops up in this movie, but the rest of them aren’t simply riding her coattails here. Michelle Rodriguez has the least screen time to work with, but she creates A LOT of emotional weight whenever she’s given the chance to and has some of the more complicated scenes to pull off. I wasn’t quite as impressed with Elizabeth Debicki who kind of gets overshadowed by her own narrative and while her passivity is part of her arc as a character, it felt like the movie might have been trying a bit too hard to give her stuff to do instead of letting the actor just act the part. She’s great in the movie, absolutely, but she’s certainly the bronze medal here which I guess is better than Cynthia Erivo who comes in pretty late into the movie, but honestly she manages to slip into their dynamic effortlessly and never really feels out of place despite more or less being a last minute addition.
Wait, why are we getting bogged down in all this “character” stuff!? WHAT ABOUT THE PULSE POUNDING ACTION AND SUSPENSE!? The movie does have quite an excellent heist scene once we get around to it, but it’s not over the top or excessively violent; rather it’s the buildup to the heist and the characters we’ve spent all this time with that brings the drama up to eleven once we get to it. The movie does a pretty good job with the drama overall, mostly because it has room for the serious stuff like Elizabeth Uebicki’s terrible mother and skeevy “rich companion”, but also for some straight up soap opera moments that I can’t spoil here but really spice up the second half right at the point where it might have started to become tedious. Sure, the movie isn’t a mile a minute roller coaster ride and there are points where things might be a bit too slow or a subplot is getting just a little too much spotlight (to the detriment of other subplots, but we’ll get to that soon enough), but it does a good job of raising the stakes and doling out reveals to keep the tension high.
The one thing that holds the movie back is its scope which is too broad and they frankly could have cut a good twenty minutes off of this just by cutting out the go nowhere scenes and rather pointless subplots. As far as I see it, the core three narratives here are that of the widows, the story of Collin Farrell running for office, and [get out guy] as more or less the agent of chaos throwing a wrench into everyone’s plans. These three stories are well constructed, fit together rather seamlessly, and come to satisfying conclusions. However, there are stories going on just outside of these primary plot threads that don’t work as well and kind of interfere with what’s going on. I can’t get into a lot of them because of spoilers, but some of the threads in here don’t end up paying off the way they should; particularly the gangster running for office who’s threatening Viola Davis (and who Daniel Kaluuya is working for) and someone who SEEMS to have a plan for everything that’s going on… but then doesn’t. Maybe I just don’t understand local races but it never really made sense to me how a guy who’s job is basically to commit crimes (the film is actually kind of vague about what kind of activities he was really up to) can run for office and not be immediately arrested or at the very least under harsh scrutiny. I mean this is the guy trying to shake down Viola Davis and we see him have his own men executed… but none of that is keeping him from raising money, going on debates, or avoiding the attention of the police who I’m guessing know about his criminal past (and present) and have let him slide but probably don’t want him to be their boss? At least with Daniel Kaluuya you understand where he’s coming from and he role fits well into the bigger picture which I’m assuming might be the POINT of Brian Tyree Henry’s character, but it almost feels like his story should have been its own movie instead of popping up every once in a while here. I guess we can just chalk that one up to my own ignorance or biases as far as how THE SYSTEM USUALLY WORKS, but at least as far as the character who’s master plan doesn’t really materialize, well I feel at least somewhat qualified to talk about that one since it’s mostly about plot and construction instead of Chicago politics. This one bothered me quite a bit is the one I can talk about the least is the one that really bothered me because the scenes with them were clearly important and foreshadowed a lot that never really paid off at the end; not that the ending is BAD but it’s not the ending I would have expected given what they set up. Ironically, that ending would have been PERFECT if they DIDN’T include that subplot and left the ending to be much more of a surprise instead of foreshadowing it.
This MIGHT be one of my favorite films of the year. I didn’t fall in love with it which is why I’m not CERTAIN it is, but for a movie I was dreading as being dry and miserable it turns out to have a lot more flavor than I or the marketing team really gave it credit for. If you have the chance I do recommend going to see it even if the run time is a tad bit bloated. It’s a relatively small price to pay for a movie that does so much right, though it might be worth waiting for a home release if you don’t have a high tolerance for unnecessary subplots because they are present and account for here. You know, director’s cuts are always movies that added MORE scenes and maybe switched a few things around, but I don’t think I’ve seen one that makes a movie less bloated and more streamlined. Unless of course the original cut of Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers is considered the director’s cut, but then that’s probably not the best example to cite if I’m trying to prove a point here.