OnScreen Review: "Widows"

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Ken Jones

  • Chief Film Critic

Widows is a film that joins the ranks of State of Play and Edge of Darkness as recent films that have been adapted from a British miniseries. Actually, it jumps to the front of the class of these adaptations. Like Edge of Darkness, Widows originated from the mid-80s and has been ported over to a modern-day American setting. However, whereas those other films were political thrillers, this film is more of a crime thriller with political tones. It is also director Steve McQueen’s first film since the 2013 Oscar-winning Best Picture 12 Years a Slave.

The film is set in Chicago, which is a perfect backdrop for this mix of crime and local politics given the history of political corruption in Chicago and the current climate of gun violence in the city. A heist gone wrong leads to the fiery death of a four-man crew headed by Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson). His widow, Veronica (Viola Davis), is shortly thereafter paid a visit by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a crime boss attempting to go legit by running for city alderman. It turns out that the failed heist was his money, $2 million, which went up in smoke, severely hampering his campaign. Given a month to find a way to recoup the money her deceased husband stole, Veronica recruits the widows of his crew, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), to pull off what would have been Harry’s next heist with their lives on the line.

Davis’ Veronica is grieving but is also pretty ruthless herself in needing to get the job done. She more or less threatens Alice and Linda into doing the job, never saying that she will give Jamal Manning their names if they say no, but never saying she won’t give him their names either. Linda has two young kids and her business has been seized by people that her husband owed gambling debts to while Alice is faced with the prospects of using her looks in what her mother terms transactional relationships with wealthy men. Given the uncertainty of their futures and the sudden need to provide for themselves and the people around them, there is clear motivation beyond Veronica’s threat for them to agree to do it. Later on in the film, a fourth member joins the crew, Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a hairstylist working multiple jobs to make ends meet.

These women are not the only ones invested in the money that went up in flames, though. Jamal Manning’s campaign for alderman is his way out of the criminal lifestyle he has been involved in for so long. At his side is his brother, Jatemme Manning (Daniel Kaluuya), the unflinching and ruthless muscle of Jamal’s crew. Manning is closing the gap but still faces an uphill battle against the establishment candidate in Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), whose family has been a staple of Chicago politics and has run that ward for generations. Jack’s motivation for running is as much or more about family duty and obligation as it is about him actually wanting to run, having the stand in the shadow of his father Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall), a long-time political player in the city.

The best thing the film has going for it, in addition to its stellar cast, is that there are essentially three factions with a vested interest in the events here, with significant upside and downside depending on the outcome of the job. The film also touches on the famously corrupt nature of the Chicago political system, the increasing disparity between the haves and have nots in the city, and racial profiling.

On top of all of that is the women at the center of it all deciding to take control of their lives and determine their futures for themselves rather than have it dictated by the men who have left them or the men who now threaten them. It’s almost dismissive of the overall quality of the film and the characters of Veronica, Alice, Linda, and Belle to say that it is a film of female empowerment. It is that, but it’s also more than that. They’re pressed into a nearly impossible situation and have to pull something off that they have no experience in doing. I loved the ingenuity of these women and how they use people underestimating them to their advantage. I also like that this comes out in the same year as Ocean’s 8, which is a very interesting contrast to this film; where Ocean’s 8 is light and precise and like an entertaining puzzle box, Widows is blunt and messy and like a crucible to forge them. Both, it should be said, have their merits.

Viola Davis continues to be a commanding on-screen presence. Neeson is really good in his small role. Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall have some explosive scenes together. Kaluuya is a stone cold killer in his role. Brian Tyree Henry is really impressing as he gets roles beyond Donald Glover’s Atlanta. Michelle Rodriguez gets to play a bit against type and it better for it. Between this and Bad Times at the El Royale, Cynthia Erivo is having a good 2018. Jon Berthnal, Carrie Coon, Jacki Weaver, Garret Dillahunt, Lukas Haas, and Matt Walsh also have supporting roles in what may be the best ensemble cast of 2018. However, I came away most impressed by Elizabeth Debicki, who gets the best character arc and makes the most of it. At 6’2” she is statuesque and cuts a commanding figure on screen, but she also holds her own in several scenes with Viola Davis. She was very good in the miniseries The Night Manager and has had smaller roles in The Great Gatsby and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but this is her best performance to date. I’m excited to see where her career goes from here.

Widows is a strong adaptation from director Steve McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame. It features an all-star cast and has a great story to tell that is set in the hard streets of Chicago. The women at the center of the film make it a captivating viewing where you wonder if they can and will pull off the job. There are real stakes for everyone involved and nobody is going to come out entirely clean from this. Widows is one of the better films of the year because it is highly entertaining and compelling.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars