There’s a cold chill that hangs in the air of Widows, the collaboration between brooding auteur Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) and celebrated novelist and Hollywood hot ticket item Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”, “Sharp Objects”). Theirs is a chilly heist movie, one that draws equally from modern American racism (whose roots run deep here) and political paranoia; a feature that’s marked by events of extreme brutality and cold calculation. A far cry from the slick heist movies born of Steven Soderbergh, Edgar Wright, or Spike Lee, Widows is still complete with its share of double-crosses, smart aleck maneuverings, and bone-chattering suspense. It’s not a total top-to-bottom revision of the traditional heist flick but their offering is an artful and potent reworking of the established formula.
That Widows never quite reaches four-dimensional chess levels of intelligence is quite alright – even if the combined pedigree of McQueen and Flynn suggests a total revisionist take on the worn-in sub-genre. Rather, Widows is just ahead of the curve; wildly enjoyable, deliciously dark, and backed by a triage of standout performances. It takes the classic elements of the formula, tinkers with them and reconstructs into something both familiar and new and the result can be, somewhat unexpectedly, a blast to watch.
Viola Davis stars as Veronica, the faithful wife to a notorious thief (Liam Neeson) killed during a robbery gone wrong. A defining characteristic of Davis’ performances is her ability to relay a sense of composure in times of tragedy and she’s more than up to the task here. Beneath a hard facade, Veronica is a complexly written character; intimidating, broken, scornful. A forlorn vestibule of deep sorrow and at-whatever-cost gumption. When the target of her husband’s last job, a thug-turned-political-hopeful played with ominous intensity by Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry, comes pounding at her door, demanding the two million dollars he stole, money that burned up with him, Veronica must assemble her own team – made up of the widows of the men her husband worked with and died alongside – to pull off a heist of their own.
Flanking Davis, the perennially badass Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo round out the all-female crew but it’s Elizabeth Debicki’s Alice who makes the greatest impression. The victim of spousal abuse and maternal coddling, Alice’s discovery of her innate ability to work on the wrong side of the law – her clever way of purchasing a gun so that it can’t be traced back to her, her sultry ability to charm information free, her increasing calm under pressure – makes for a wonderful bit of coming-into-oneself and is one of the greatest joys of the feature as well as its sparse opportunity for a dash of levity.
As intimidating a villain as has crossed the screen in 2018, Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya is truly terrifying as Jatemme Manning, the unscrupulous muscle to his cousin’s political aspirations. Kaluuya plays deadened here, no light behind his eyes, no mercy in his soul. As the epitome of ethical bankruptcy, he is the most extreme example of the moral soup that the Chicago-based characters of Widows wade through. Even Colin Farrell’s Jack Mulligan, a wanna-be politician trying to distance himself from his father’s brutish policies while paying lip service to his legacy, is a shell of moral standing – and his character’s place in the whole affair doesn’t quite hold up under closer scrutiny.
McQueen directs with a brutal ferocity, scenes often ending in ruthless bloodshed that’s as well staged as it is chilling. Angling for a different vista, a new perspective, McQueen opts for artful shots that suggest the inner torment of the characters. Murders take place in broad daylight, on literally squeaky clean floor. Conversations are captured from outside closed doors, robbed of the context of moving lips, bruised egos shining through nonetheless. From a purely technical level, Widows provides a different view to this remixed archetypal tale.
In so far as McQueen and Flynn’s story differentiates itself by changing the building blocks of the story and the way in which it’s told, so too does Widows place more focus than we’re used to on depth of performance. From Davis to Debicki, Kaluuya to Farrell, Widows is a monstrously performed number and one that should be in serious conversation come awards season.
CONCLUSION: ‘Widows’ is a vicious, female-led retooling of the heist movie, mounted with great depth by Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn; one that puts performance as much in the driver’s seat as an icy display of detached violence. Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki and Daniel Kaluuya are all fantastic.