by Philip Price
Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki
Runtime: 2 hours & 9 minutes
There is no more of a movie this year than “Widows.” “Widows” is a damn movie in every fiber of its being and I mean that not in the way that it could only exist as a feature-length film, but more in that it utilizes every aspect of the art form to do what the art form was designed to do: entertain and be thought-provoking. “Widows” is a damn movie. It's a damn good movie too. In fact, it knows it's toeing this line of being a genre film and something more thoughtful, more credible in the eyes of Academy voters, if you will and kind of flaunts it unabashedly. “Widows” is essentially director Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) asking why he can't have the best of both worlds and then showing us with what feels like effortless finesse that he can. In a scene that occurs early in the film the current alderman of a south side precinct in Chicago, Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall), is arguing with his son, Jack (Colin Farrell), who is running to replace his father as a sixth generation alderman in the district. The discussion between father and son doesn't begin as an argument, but rather with Jack bragging to his father about how he acquired a piece of art from an up-and-coming painter for the price of a mere $50,000. The thing is, we already know from Jack's opponent in this political race, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), that aldermen in Chicago make around $106,000 a year and so there is this precedent for the lifestyle of an alderman that Jack and his father are clearly surpassing by supplanting what of their tastes cannot be supported by their public facade. Furthermore, as Tom and his son's discussion escalates Tom quickly resorts to insulting Jack's purchase by calling it "wallpaper". What is the difference between art and wallpaper? The film doesn't explicitly ask this question, but it certainly poses it to the audience further suggesting that-if you can't tell the difference-does it matter and if you can what makes one more valuable than the other? They both serve a purpose, but which is more functional? Later in the film we are introduced to Reverend Wheeler (Jon Michael Hill), the man with the biggest congregation in the district where Jack and Jamal are running for alderman. In the sermon we're treated to the pastor posing the question, "when did normal start to pass for excellence?" McQueen is once again reminding the viewer of this difference in either acceptably conforming to a standard or standing poised in such a way there is no doubt of intention. “Widows” undoubtedly conforms to certain archetypes of the crime genre, but it is also one of the most poised and confident examples of the genre in some time; an aggressively compact narrative with the style of a slick, tailored suit that expertly unpacks all it wants to address through a vibrant and straight-up electric piece that is chic enough to be purely decorative, but just abrasive enough to glimpse the art underneath.
Want to know how dense “Widows” actually is? Throughout that entire introductory paragraph where major plot elements were detailed, we didn't even touch on the main throughline of the narrative. Yeah, the inner-city politics is fairly interesting and both Jack and Tom along with Jamal and his brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) make for two very intense duos with drastically different approaches to their intimidation techniques; McQueen emphasizing time and time again that both are ruthless without ever making his film feel gratuitous. This alderman election serves only as a backdrop to everything else going on. In some form, it is a blood on the leaves and blood at the roots approach as Liam Neeson's Harry Rawlings and his wife, Veronica (Viola Davis), are the ones at that forefront. Harry is a professional thief with 30-plus years of experience pulling off jobs he's planned down to the piss breaks. McQueen opens the film by intercutting a job gone wrong with that of the morning routine of Harry and Veronica or "Ronny" as Harry so affectionately refers to her. There is a level of intimacy between the two that almost suggests they're reassuring themselves of their intimacy-it's somewhat uneasy-and while it seems apparent Ronny is aware of her husband's line of work it is also apparent, she often chooses not to acknowledge it. So, when this latest job Harry has orchestrated ends up going really sideways and he along with his three partners-Florek (Jon Bernthal), Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and Jimmy Nunn (Coburn Goss) - go up in flames after a SWAT team rains bullets down upon their getaway van - Ronnie is left wrecked and with nowhere to turn. As things turn out, Harry and his crew had just lifted a cool $2 million from the Manning brothers. That $2 million went up in smoke with Harry and his crew and so Henry's Jamal, who may or may not carry the weight of a crime boss, makes a visit to Ronnie to tell her she has one month to replace the funds her late husband stole from him; the money that was going to afford him a new life and fund the remainder of his campaign. Ronnie, a former teacher, has been left with little more than Harry's notebook that carries the outlines for each of his jobs as well as her trusty Westie that she carries everywhere. Of course, the Westie isn't going to get her the $2 million, but the outlines of a job left unfinished in Harry's notebook might. In order to pull this off Ronnie recruits the other willing wives who were widowed along with herself with the threat that if they don't, she will be forced to turn their names over to the Manning brothers as well. This leaves Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) little choice, though Ronnie leaves slight room for compassion when it comes to Amanda (Carrie Coon) who is now raising a nine-month-old baby on her own. Throw Cynthia Erivo into the mix as a hard-working, loyal, but discouraged member of this small community and you have a film that not only expertly packs in all the tropes of a crime thriller that is exciting and fun, but one that also touches on politics, gender, race, and the state of countless other topics and ideas in this day and age.
There's another line spoken in the film by Jack Mulligan's assistant, Siobhan (Molly Kunz), as the two of them ride in the back of a limo from the poor side of the district in which Jack is hoping to follow his father as the new alderman to the edge of the district, a more upscale area, where Jack resides. This transition is captured in a single take where the camera seemingly rests upon the hood of the vehicle so as to point out how quickly the backdrop can change in the suburbs of Chicago. This piece of dialogue as spoken by Siobhan goes, "Everyone has a sob story; most of them better than yours." She is of course saying this to Jack who is complaining about his lack of choice in the life he's led and the fact he shouldn't have to justify his persuasions to his father who allowed him no choice from the get-go, but while this scene in particular is emblematic of how well and how much Widows layers into each and every scene it also speaks to the mentality of the film as a whole. Of all the people who have the most present, most valid of sob stories to use as an excuse it is this set of women who've just lost their husbands, but maybe more prevalent are the financial and emotional states their husbands have left them in which is to say, they are drained on both accounts. This doesn't leave one in a state of mourning, but rather with a sense of perspective. These women have fallen such a long distance in such a short time; going from choosing to know as little as possible about the affairs of their husbands and having benefited to varying degrees to having this choice of ignorance ultimately result in the only thing it was ever going to: pain. The moment Ronnie realizes she will pay the ultimate price for her husband's transgressions no matter how much she knew or didn't know that part of her psyche where she feels sorry for herself immediately disappears. The thing is, Ronnie knows that deep down in her soul, she knew. She knew this day was coming even if she didn't know what form it might take and by owning up to the role she's been playing for so many years she doesn't allow herself to feel sorry for anyone despite the fact that from the outside looking in she might have every right to retaliate back against Siobhan's statement were it her sitting in the back of that limo instead of Jack. This is yet another idea the film toys with a la the persona you create for yourself versus the one others project on you. “Widows” could have been little more than an entertaining thriller, but while this pretense is alluring to mainstream audiences the film itself doesn't allow such archetypes to define it. Moreover, this is to say that McQueen and Gillian Flynn's screenplay not only has the intent of telling an action-packed story with several twists and turns, but also telling a very human story about dealing with the awful things life throws at you and not making excuses when it comes to dealing with them or allowing such things to define you. The diverse cast only further demonstrates the array of awful things that might happen to someone dependent upon circumstances such as race, gender, and social class, as well as the need to come together in order to deal with the awful things, together.
In effectively communicating each of the aforementioned strands and bringing them together in an intricate, but still precise fashion what comes to the forefront is the fleshing out of the characters and inherently memorable performances. This is absolutely Davis' film and she owns every moment of it just as her body of work would lead you to believe she would, but Davis is very clearly a generous collaborator for, while her Ronnie is the ringleader and she the star, the remainder of the cast is able to feed off this energy and fulfill this objective despite each having reservations about taking on the roles of their late husbands and doing something none of them were either prepared to do or feel confident in pulling off successfully. None of these women are career criminals. None of these women know what their approach should be. These women-specifically Ronnie, Linda, and Alice-are simply looking to knock the job out so they might be able to move on with their lives, but it is in outlining the balance of work and motherhood and camaraderie that Rodriguez's Linda must find the confidence to go through with what she knows will have imperfections despite being accustomed to being in control and running the show. In acknowledging her imperfections, she invests in Erivo's Belle, a babysitter she finds through an app who initially is there to watch her children while she joins Ronnie and Alice to map out their plan but becomes more. Belle works multiple jobs and is losing sight of the here and now with a daughter of her own who she barely sees even though everything she's doing is to earn money to give her daughter a better life. Belle and Linda provide balance for one another to a certain extent which inspires this innate bond and trust between the two prompting Linda to bring Belle in as the getaway driver and foregoing the formality of running it by Ronnie. On the other side of things is Alice who has been forced by her own mother (Jacki Weaver) to feel as if what she's worth is dependent on who she's with. In many ways, Debicki's Alice looks at this job as more of an opportunity than an obstacle. Though she is reserved and timid in the beginning it is Alice who has the greatest arc, growing into a confident and self-assured woman who isn't afraid to put someone else in their place. Rodriguez is rather good here if not necessarily adding much range to what we've seen her do in other films and Erivo, though limited in her screen time and character development, can't help but to leave an impression. It is Debicki who comes away with the most to gain though, for all the stories that are going on within “Widows” and all the wider stories that are implied through each and every one of the many characters involved, it is her story that we kind of lean towards and want to know more about. That said, Kaluuya also turns in a scene-stealing performance that will quite literally either push you to the edge of or all the way down in your seat every time he shows up on screen. Maybe best of all though, is the fact that despite certain stand-outs and exceptions this truly feels like an ensemble cast that compliments one another as much as their performances do the greater story being told. “Widows” is a film that one can only imagine will get better and better with each visit and better even, feels like a film that will be re-visited a lot. Strange, but delicious fruit indeed.