screenplay by Gillian Flynn & Steve McQueen, based on the novel by Lynda LaPlante
directed by Steve McQueen
by Bill Chambers Sorry, Psycho. Killing off one movie star halfway through isn't cool. You know what's cool? Killing off three movie stars in the first five minutes. Widows casts Liam Neeson, Jon Bernthal, and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as the husbands, and while the title would seem to give away that they aren't long for this film's world, watching established leading men bite it so soon still creates an undeniable moment of cognitive dissonance. It's thrilling to see co-writer/director Steve McQueen use his cachet to these subversive ends, not to mention apply his formal sophistication to the crime movie. Which isn't to say he elevates it (we're talking about a genre that counts Anthony Mann and Jean-Pierre Melville among its pioneers)--more that Widows offers respite from a glut of John Wick wannabes and Neeson's own assembly-line thrillers. So, Widows. Viola Davis plays the rich one, Veronica. She lives in a swank condo overlooking Chicago that seems to have taken on the icy gleam of the bachelor pad from McQueen's Shame in the absence of Neeson's Harry, an idealized vision of whom haunts Veronica's imagination. (These scenes play like the distaff version of Neeson's The Grey.) Harry's partners were not as well off, and their wives, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), need money desperately enough that Alice's own mother (Jacki Weaver, perhaps inevitably) tells her to become a paid escort. Harry, it turns out, owed money to a crime lord, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who's now running for city council against golden child Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell). Manning wants Veronica to pay up, so she commits to robbing Mulligan and thus finishing what Harry started, enlisting Linda and Alice as her partners. None of them are career criminals, yet Veronica figures that if she can tailor the heist to their individual strengths, they just might pull it off.
Widows stints a little on process and procedure, denying us some of the conventional pleasures of these things--the feeling of tumblers clicking into place as the plan goes accordingly, for instance, as well as the spirit of teamwork and camaraderie. The latter could end up a sticking point amongst those expecting the film to prioritize sisterhood, though Veronica and Alice end up bonding privately, resulting in a surprisingly potent closing scene, and Linda has her own relationship with her babysitter (Cynthia Erivo) that is weighty enough for Linda to eventually recruit her as the getaway driver. It's also worth pointing out that in a film essentially about a political race between black and white candidates, the former is the far bigger or more literal gangster, even if both are ultimately corrupt. At first I wondered if the world particularly needs this right now (especially from a black filmmaker), but then I realized that Widows isn't really talking about race, it's talking about men. (And, by extension, capitalism.) The diversity of Veronica's wholly sympathetic female crew--two are black, one's Latina, one's white--is the true counterbalance to how race is portrayed elsewhere: almost everyone else belongs to The Patriarchy. Smash away. What's great about Widows, aside from its meticulous lensing and sound design (McQueen and his regular DP Sean Bobbitt do a lot with vehicular pans in this one, and faces reflected against windows, looming spectrally against a dark city), are the often-wordless character and story beats. Veronica brings her cuddly white terrier everywhere with her; when Manning wants to bully and coerce her, he knows to pick up her dog. The dog is where she deposits her love now. So when we see her dropping the animal off at a kennel in wide shot, we know shit's about to get real. It's one of the best, most goosebumps-inducing cues I've ever seen for that. The performances are well-served by a screenplay (co-authored with Gone Girl scribe Gillian Flynn) that enjoys idiosyncrasies. Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya is terrifying as Manning's brother and enforcer, Rodriguez is revealed to have heretofore-unexplored dimensions, and Bernthal, in one childish boop on Alice's forehead that shows how ungrateful he is to be married to a goddess, made me gleefully anticipate his death in record time. Programme: Gala Presentations