It’s hard to not love a heist movie. Sure, the majority of them are predicated on the same basic idea — criminals/criminal associates get in hot water and need one last big score to make their all troubles disappear — but the thrill comes from the special details added to the mix. The crew. The stakes. The target. The execution. And the ever present question of “Will they get away with it?” If a heist movie can properly put those puzzle pieces together, it’s a winner.
As you might expect from talents like Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn, however, Widows has all of that and more. Armed with a potent premise, a brilliant ensemble, and thrilling, beautiful cinematography, it delivers all that it promises with some epic twists and awesome reveals stockpiled. It has the occasional and unfortunate flaw in its storytelling, but they are elements easy enough to look past when considering the film as a whole.
Loosely adapted from the 1980s British series of the same name by first-time collaborators Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn, Widows begins with what could easily be the third act of another heist film. Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his professional partners (Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Coburn Goss) are pulling off an absolutely massive job that would net them millions — but then things go horribly wrong. As they are making their escape, they are blocked by an overwhelming police presence, and not only does the confrontation lead to a shootout, but also a massive explosion that leaves the entire crew dead.
We learn that their wives – Veronica (Viola Davis), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), and Amanda (Carrie Coon) — never had any specific involvement with the criminal enterprise, but that all changes with the death of their husbands. As it turns out, the person Henry was trying to rob in his last heist was Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a candidate running to be the alderman of Chicago‘s 18th ward, and a target not to be messed with. As all of the cash burned during the botched job, Jamal targets Veronica and demands compensation, particularly because he needs the money in his tightening race against dynasty politician and front runner Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell).
Without the means to pay Jamal back and the clock ticking, Veronica finds her only solution in a notebook that Henry left behind — a notebook that contains detailed plans for what would have been his crew’s next target. She coldly enlists the assistance of Alice and Linda by essentially blackmailing them (a.k.a. threatening to give their names to Jamal), and they collaborate to both work out what the target is, and train so that they can take what they need to pay their debt.
Admittedly I’m still confused why the notebook contains detailed notes and blueprints but not an address — a story issue that develops into one of the second act’s most significant narrative threads — but it’s a weak link in what is otherwise a solid and polished chain. While it’s always cool to watch the formulation and implementation of a well-devised plan in a heist film, Widows is particularly built on the strength of its characters, and Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn offer an amazing ensemble to us rapturously invested.
It’s no surprise that Viola Davis gives a phenomenal performance, armed at all times with an icy demeanor and a West Highland White Terrier, and the script gives her excellent material to really give it her all. As though it’s not enough that Victoria life is being threatened and that she just lost her husband, we also learn that Victoria lost her young son years before in an incident with a police officer. It’s an immensely rich character, and Davis commands every scene she’s in.
The same fortune extend to Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez as well, not to mention Cynthia Erivo as Belle, a babysitter/hairdresser who finds herself roped into the heist (via circumstances better left not mentioned due to spoilers). Alice and Linda are two very different people left in very different places after the deaths of their husbands — the former looking for a way out from under her abusive mother (Jackie Weaver); the latter struggling due to her betrothed’s hidden spending habits — and Widows allows time for us to see their worlds and understand their motivations in getting the job done. And while Belle is introduced later in the story, she’s not only quickly established, but perfectly interwoven. The material brings out the best in all three of them.
Outfitted with their own specific, well-established and legitimate arcs, Brian Tyree Henry’s Jamal Manning and Colin Farrell’s Jack Mulligan likewise make for outstanding antagonist forces in the well-layered narrative, but a specific spotlight needs to be put on Daniel Kaluuya as Jamal’s brother, Jatemme. To date, Kaluuya’s most prominent work — be it Get Out, Black Panther, Sicario, or even his episode of Black Mirror — has seen him on the “Good” side of the morality scale, but it’s amazing to see him pick up that scale and smash it on the floor in this performance. Jatemme operates in all the ways necessary to keep Jamal’s hands clean, and it leads to the character possessing a persistent violence behind his eyes. It’s both terrifying and captivating.
As a director, Steve McQueen enters totally new territory with Widows, but the sharpness of his craft is not in the least affected by his genre exploration — it instead suggests remarkable possibilities. Titles like Shame and 12 Years A Slave didn’t exactly offer opportunities for action sequences, but the filmmaker’s collaborations with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and editor Joe Walker yield both sumptuous and heart-racing material — made ever more epic by the dark Hans Zimmer score.
The crew? An ensemble of exceptional actresses each playing out a smart, compelling arc. The stakes? Bryan Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya make for wonderfully threatening antagonists that keep the pressure on like a boot on a neck. The target? Shrouded in some nice mystery that keeps you guessing. The execution? Thrilling and smart, with plenty of surprises. And yes, you’re kept asking until the end if they will all get away clean. Widows hits all of the big targets to be an exceptional heist movie, and adds the incredible prestige of a filmmaker like Steve McQueen. It’s one of the best of the fall, and makes the mind race imagining what future genres McQueen and Gillian Flynn may explore.
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