‘Widows’ Review: Viola Davis Commands the Screen in a Somber Heist Film

“Widows” is a heist movie in a somber mood, a thriller not entirely comfortable with thrills. Though it has plenty of mayhem and a plot that twists, buckles and swerves, this movie, directed by Steve McQueen (“Hunger,” “Shame,” “12 Years a Slave”) from a script he wrote with Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl,” “Sharp Objects”), moves at a slow, contemplative pace, driven by grief, dread and desperation rather than the more familiar motives of greed, ambition and rebellion.

At first, Veronica (Viola Davis), who works for the Chicago Teachers Union, is the furthest thing from a criminal mastermind. That line of work belongs to her husband, Harry (Liam Neeson), until he dies in a robbery gone awry. In addition to their austere and elegant high-rise apartment, which Veronica now shares with a fluffy white dog named Olivia, Harry leaves behind an inconvenient debt and access to secrets she’d rather not know.

[Read our recent interview with Viola Davis.]

The men whose money he stole on his last job demand repayment, and so Veronica recruits the widows of some of Harry’s former accomplices to help her clear the obligation. A notebook points the way to $5 million stashed in a safe room somewhere in the city, and since Veronica owes only $2 million there’s incentive for everyone. By movie-money standards, it’s a pretty modest haul, which is part of the point.

The other women have been left in tough circumstances by partners who didn’t take very good care of them. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) was beaten by her husband, Florek (Jon Bernthal), and is now abused and manipulated by her tyrannical mother (Jacki Weaver). Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), who owns a clothing store, was married to Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a charmer with a serious gambling habit.

The two of them are initially skeptical of Veronica’s proposal, and a fourth widow, Amanda (Carrie Coon), has her own reasons for staying out of the scheme. But Alice, Linda and Linda’s sometime babysitter, Belle (Cynthia Erivo), join up, not out of any sense of outlaw glamour but out of raw need — for money, for security, for revenge and (especially in Alice’s case) for self-respect. That they become glamorous outlaws in spite of themselves is a bonus paid, somewhat grudgingly, to the audience.

As a filmmaker, McQueen has made a specialty of unflinching attention to real-world cruelty, testing our endurance in the service of moral enlightenment. “Hunger,” “Shame” and “12 Years a Slave” fasten on suffering — physical and psychological, self-induced and inflicted by oppressors — less as a source of empathy than as a means to the truth. When characters are causing or enduring pain, something essential and undeniable about them and their circumstances is revealed, and the audience’s discomfort becomes a form of understanding.

“Widows” is nowhere near as brutally demanding as those earlier films, but it grafts some of their rigor onto crime-caper DNA. The result is a fascinating and sometimes frustrating hybrid, a film that tries both to transcend and to exploit its genre. It works best when Davis commands the screen with her inimitable blend of psychological subtlety and operatic intensity.

Veronica may not be an entirely believable character — she seems to float above Chicago rather than to have risen from any of its neighborhoods — but she is always a persuasive presence. Before she lost Harry, the couple lost their son, and bereavement is what defines her and drives her forward. Loss makes her angry, weary and lonesome, and it also blurs her vision. She looks back on moments of quiet, easy intimacy with her husband without quite seeing who he really was.

He leaves her at the mercy of a complicated network of corrupt politicians and murderous minions, and “Widows” loses a lot of its power when those guys crowd the actual widows off the screen. Veronica’s plight and her response to it unfold against the backdrop of a political campaign that is also a gangland power struggle. This is Chicago, after all, or at least an idea of that city as a caldron of corruption and ethnic rivalry. An Irish-American politico, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), whose father (the indispensable Robert Duvall) was an old-fashioned ward boss, faces off against an African-American crime boss, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), in search of political legitimacy.

Jamal’s brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), is his enforcer, and it was their money that Harry stole. He also had dealings with Jack, a slick pseudo-reformer whose natural ruthlessness is checked by a hint of ambivalence. The contest between the Mulligans and the Mannings is meant to suggest a wider social canvas for the story, but McQueen and Flynn’s gestures of topicality are the least convincing parts of “Widows.” In spite of the authentic locations, there is little real sense of Chicago as a living metropolis and even less insight into how race, money and power function there or anywhere else.

The city’s conflicts and contradictions serve instead as elements in a static, ready-made backdrop, occasionally distracting attention from the drama at center stage. And it’s as a melodrama of survival that “Widows” works best.

The filmmakers don’t really care about the money, or the politics, or the strict rules and durable conventions of the heist movie, and a viewer expecting a jaunty fable of female empowerment along the lines of “Ocean’s 8” is likely to be nonplused by the abstraction and melancholy of this film. But those are also its most surprising and interesting traits. It may lack the energy for fun, but at least it has the nerve to be sad.


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Rated R. Blood and thunder. Running time: 2 hours 9 minutes.

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