“Widows” is an exquisite crime drama refreshed and relocated from the British 1983 limited series to the authentic socio-political quagmire of modern Chicago. When a crew of experienced criminals (Liam Neeson, Jon Bernthal and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) are killed in the midst of a heist, which included two million dollars in campaign funds from a gang leader turned politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), their wives (Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez) are left with the debt. With death (or worse) as a consequence, they must pursue their dead husbands’ final job to survive.
McQueen has such a staggering tool belt of techniques. Flipping through the rolodex of scenes in my mind, there is just scene after scene and frame after frame that reaffirms his position as one of the most exciting filmmakers of our current generation. In the opening scene of the film, Veronica (Viola Davis) and Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) are in a tender embrace; Davis’ rich ebony skin clashes with Neeson’s weathered ashen pink skin clash against a canvas of white bedspread. As you’re uncomfortably close to their tongue-fuelled passionate kiss, McQueen jump cuts into the thick of an escaping heist crew punctuated with covering fire; the dark streets are a strobe of yellowing street lights, sparks and deafening flashes of gunfire. The camera feels like it’s mounted to a haul of money on one of the crew’s back. Intimate portrayals of crime and passion.
In another scene as Colin Farrell’s Jack Mulligan escapes a barrage of unwanted questions from a seasoned reporter with his assistant Siobhan (Molly Kunz), the camera mounts to the front of his black town car. As we are only allowed to hear his private desperation, with Siobhan berating him to ‘man-up,’ you track the disparity of life in the ward. From tenement enclaves to the Mulligan stately manor in a matter of minutes; the status quo’s corruption is rife and close. As Veronica (Davis) reminisces about her lost husband, she stares into the mirrored reflection in her apartment windows and conjures his vision. As this vision embraces her, the melancholy is poetic and goosebumps inducing.
The screenplay, written by Gillian Flynn (author of “Gone Girl”) and McQueen is hyper-aware of the structural beats that a pure genre of this story could tell, and in many ways, they allow the intricacies of their characters specific struggles to steer the story. Flynn and McQueen focus on this patch of the greater Chicago in order to flesh out the entire world – class structures and institutions become essentially entangled to the story they’re telling. “Widows” doesn’t move with break-neck momentum, but rather a kind of searching saunter. It takes the first half of the movie to acclimatise to the pacing. Once there, you instantly look forward to a second chance viewing.
Viola Davis’ Veronica is the anchor of this sprawling grief-addled, desperate crime saga. Her strength and her grief couple and resonate in almost every scene; it’s a towering leading performance. In the peripherals of her life is the consistently wonderful Garret Dillahunt (of “Deadwood” fame) who plays Bash, her family driver who must wrestle with revealing details of her husband’s profession and protective instincts.
Elizabeth Debicki delivers an achingly good performance as Alice, the battered trophy wife of John Bernthal’s Florek. In the wake of her partner’s death, her mother Agnieska (played with apathetic pragmatism by Aussie screen legend Jacki Weaver), ignores her directionlessness and pushes her to monetise her looks and “trophy” appeal and become an escort. Debicki’s out of the frying pan and into the fire arc puts her at odds with everyone in her life. She’s unwilling to forgo her dignity for any man, or woman for that matter.
Michelle Rodriguez’s Linda is probably the weakest element of the principal cast, largely due to what they withhold about her character’s past. However, in her defence, Rodriguez delivers one of the most devastatingly raw moments in the film as she’s fumbling through agreeing to become a criminal. Cynthia Erivo’s Belle, the unexpected inclusion to the trio of widowed women, is a revelation. There’s a moment where she’s faced with the full brunt of Veronica’s dissatisfaction. Davis’ intensity is enough to make almost any performer wilt; Erivo is immovable, an embodiment of power, rigid physicality and focus.
This is the kind of film where the supporting cast is so necessary to the make-up of the movie that labelling them such almost feels insulting. The legendary Robert Duvall plays Tom Mulligan, aging symbol of enduring nepotistic political power, finally being confronted with his mortality. After a near-fatal heart attack, he called a local election in his ward with his son Jack (the charming and slippery Farrell) all but bequeathed to take the thrown, so-to-speak.
It may have been accidental, but I doubt it, that their most significant scene together posited Duvall in the shoes of his movie Godfather Marlon Brando, and Farrell in the shoes of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone. Rather than relinquishing power to gently guide his movements and guide his manipulations and manoeuvring, Farrell’s Jack all but spits in the face of his family’s political legacy. Duvall’s explosive reaction, one that would make Joe Pesci blush, is both a profoundly satisfying and acid-tongued indictment of the malignant quality of hoarding power.
Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya play Jamal and Jatemme Manning, two brothers, from the street that realises that the means for real power is political power; legalised philandering. Henry has an engaging manner, assured and inquisitive. Daniel Kaluuya is absolutely spellbinding as Jatemme. While Jamal is about legitimacy, Jatemme remains a ruthless gangland figure who continues to influence with a pistol or a well-placed blade. Watching Kaluuya in McQueen’s cross-hairs is spine-tingling stuff. Jatemme is immediately at home in the conversation of movie defining psychopaths like Waingro (Kevin Gage in Heat), or Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men). One particular scene where the camera dances around him as he inspects two of his crew rapping – who have been relinquished of his family’s cash – at gunpoint.
Filmmaker Michael Mann said that his 1995 crime opus “Heat” is a “human drama, period.” He explains that he wasn’t setting out to make a genre film conforming to a set type. “Widows” seems to share this ambition. It’s a heist drama, but neither smug or flippant. It’s a human drama of grief and loss, but also frequently life-affirming. It’s timeless and yet laced with all the rich socio-political texture that comes with modern-day Chicago and its long and complicated history with crime. Quite frankly, to earn comparisons to “Heat,” from this reviewer, should be an indication of just how damned good this movie is.