On paper, Widows sounds like a very simple, basic movie. It’s about a the wives of criminals who must come together and do a job after their husbands die and they are stuck with their debt. The premise could have been schlocky or formulaic or generic enough to go directly to video-on-demand. But what co-writer/director Steve McQueen did with this film is nothing short of extraordinary. He took a basic premise and turned it into a masterfully crafted piece of art. It would be like giving Da Vinci a blank canvas and an 8 color Crayola watercolor set and him creating another “Salvator Mundi”.
When you think of a typical heist film, you generally think of Danny Ocean and other slick, cool, well-dressed anti-heroes who steal for some sort of vengeance on the system or a person. Widows is not this kind of heist film. It’s far more than that. It’s a gritty, electric tale about greed, corruption, and inheriting problems of the past while also being a tense, thrilling caper with some of the year’s best performances.
McQueen throws us into the ring from the very beginning, as we cross-cut between meeting the soon-to-be-widows and the heist where it all went wrong. We meet Veronica (Viola Davis), who seems to be living a nice, plush life in a high-rise with here husband Harry (Liam Neeson), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), who runs her own dress shop and has a rocky relationship with her husband Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Ruflo), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) who’s husband Florek (Jon Bernthal) abuses her physically and verbally, and Amanda (Carrie Coon), who is a hot mess with her new-born child and her husband Jimmy (Coburn Goss) who barely supports her. We watch the these four men attempt job, only to perish in a sea of gunfire and explosions. These women must all must say goodbye to their husbands.
To make matters worse, the money the husbands were stealing belonged to Jamaal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a local gangster who planned on using that money to finance his electoral campaign as alderman of a South Side precinct, where he is running against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the son of the incumbent Tom Mulligan (Robert DuVall). After Veronica is threatened by Jamaal and his trigger-happy brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) to get the money back, she finds an old notebook of Harry’s to discover a job he has yet to complete. Veronica recruits Linda, Alice, and Linda’s babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo) to accomplish the job, though she quickly realizes this job is not what it seems.
McQueen, working with Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, crafted a deeply layered movie with constant surprises and exciting sequences, particularly the finale. This is a movie about answering for your past, whether it is something that you directly did or something that you’ve inherited. The wives didn’t do the crimes or steal the two million from Manning, but they’ve always turned a shoulder to their husbands as long as the money was coming in. Jack Mulligan is living in the shadow of his father and must make some tough decisions when on the campaign trail. McQueen also dives into corruption and the difference between good and evil. Jamaal Manning is a community favorite for alderman and could do well for the city, yet what about how he got the money to run this campaign? Jack’s campaign may look legit on the surface, but that’s because nobody sees him take a little off the top when a new initiative makes a little bit of money. And what about the wives? They must conform into the crime world their husbands were in. Nobody is innocent here, yet everyone has a motive. “You reap what you sow” Jack says to Veronica, as she asks him for help with Jamaal, and that’s what Widows is all about; answering for your actions.
The cast of Widows is one of the best, if not the best, ensemble of the year. A murderers row of some of the best actors working today all on top of there game. Davis, Rodriguez, Debicki, and Erivo are all sensational, each giving layered performances of characters each with their own motivation. Veronica is doing this job because she realizes it’s the only option. She recognizes her mistake for turning her cheek to Harry’s career and now must face the consequences. There is no other option for her and Davis plays her like a woman possessed. Rodriguez gives the best performance of her career as a mother of two children who struggles with what’s safe and what’s necessary for her family. Debicki is a sure-fire Oscar contender as we watch Alice grow from beaten, shaken woman into a gun-totting badass. And Erivo is a star in the making with her performance in this and Bad Times at the El Royale.
The men in the film are equally great. Henry, who’s been putting in excellent work on T.V.’s Atlanta, is stellar as a man trying to go from gangster to elected official and really rides that line of what his motivations are. Farrell gives an awards-caliber performance as the golden boy running against Manning who is closer to gangster than politician himself. And Daniel Kaluuya is truly menacing as Manning’s loyal, shoot-first-ask-second brother. You never know what he’s going to do, giving you an uneasy feeling every time he’s on screen. His eyes show us a man of fear who will kill you without hesitation. It’s one of my favorite performances of the year.
Widows is everything you want in a movie. It’s fun, thrilling, thought-provoking, and masterfully crafted. From the layered screenplay, to McQueen’s expert direction, to the quick editing, and top-notch cast, Widows has everything at the highest caliber. This is one of the very best movies of 2018.
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