With Widows, opening Friday, director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame) and writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) have delivered a rare animal — an Oscar-baiting thriller that offers all the action of a heist movie as well as organically interwoven ocial commentary. It's a blast.
"I'm dark, I'm 53, I'm in my natural hair – I'm in bed with Liam Neeson. And he's not my slave owner. I'm not a prostitute. We simply are a couple in love. I've never seen it before." pic.twitter.com/0vtaUM8338
— Diversity School (@DiverseSchool) November 10, 2018
Viola Davis is Veronica, a Chicago schools union rep married to a career criminal (Liam Neeson) who finds her cushy lifestyle — and her life — threatened when her man and his crew are immolated in a shoot-out at the end of a job gone wrong. He's gone, but so are the millions they had just stolen, and that means she will have to pay back the money's unrightful owner, a mobster running for alderman named Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Her only choice is to contact the other overnight widows whose men were killed along with hers and lean on them to help her pull off a heist of their own.
The plan is to steal a cache of stolen public funds that Veronica's dead husband detailed in a notebook he left behind.
The other women are not enthused. As Alice, Elizabeth Debicki is a ditzy Polish-American princess who is in the process of being nudged to sell her body on a site for horny rich men; she does not see herself as competent at first, nor do the others. Michelle Rodriguez is tough mom Linda, whose dress shop has just been repossessed, and who sees a bit more clearly that she has nothing to lose. Carrie Coon as Amanda has a newborn to contend with and so is passed over.
The characters' situations are, to a large extent, dictated by socio-economic factors beyond their control, so participating in a robbery that could destroy them seems, if nothing else, a shot at wresting some of that control back.As the threat level increases, Veronica, Alice and Linda make a pact to steal the loot, enlisting the aid of the world's most versatile babysitter, Belle (Cynthia Erivo).
To make things more challenging, the money they're after is in the mansion of a political scion, the corrupt Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who is hoping to take over the seat vacated by his enfeebled — but aggressively nasty — dad (Robert Duvall). He is, of course, running against … Jamal Manning.
What makes Widows rock are the gutsy performances by the women.
Davis creates an unforgettable woman driven by passion, by security and by the love she had for her husband, their life and her omnipresent little dog. Images of Veronica holding her pampered pooch as she contemplates stealing millions and avoiding getting herself killed feel instantly iconic. The dog never quite upstages her like the bird did Allison Janney in last year's I, Tonya, but it does humanize her at every turn and remind us that Veronica has both a heart and other responsibilities in life.
Debicki shines in a role that allows her to earn laughs and sympathy pangs, and that also allows her to present a young woman whose concept of self grows, radically, before our eyes. Rodriguez has never been better, and Erivo personifies the young person who wll work hard to survive and isn't above bending the rules in a world where the odds are stacked against her.
Heist movies are almost never excellent sources of character study, but Widows is, with such considerations as child-rearing, equal pay, political disenfranchisement, sexism, racism, gun control and police brutality against POC helping to form searing portraits of a group of bad-ass women who come to feel they're as good as — or better than — the men they previously hovered behind.
There are some convenient plot elements and twists to keep things entertaining, and these do occasionally distract, but the real joy in Widows is in the acting, in the women — both the made-up ones and the ones playing them.
As a postscript: This year, the list of potential nominees for Best Original Song is imposing, with the music from A Star Is Born expected to dominate. Still, if Sade's “The Big Unknown” from Widows is not given a nod, the category has lost its relevance: