Widows is a taut, moody thriller featuring a stellar ensemble cast led by the formidable Viola Davis. Based on a 1983 British ITV series of the same name, the movie amounts to a rare heist thriller propelled more by emotion than fast-paced action sequences.
The film opens with couple Veronica (Davis) and Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) sharing an intense moment of passion. “We’re in bed and we’re kissing, and it’s a sexualized kiss,” Davis said in a recent BBC News interview.
“I’m dark. I’m 53. I’m in my natural hair. I’m in bed with [him] and he’s not my slave owner. I’m not a prostitute. We simply are a couple in love,” continued Davis, who noted the rarity of seeing a non-politicized or trauma-based interracial coupling on the big screen. Yet, as the story unfolds, Widows also reminds us that love can be full of surprises.
After the opening introduction of the Rawlings, the action heats up with a botched robbery attempt and car chase that ends in a fiery blaze. The would-be robbers perish in the fire. We learn that Harry was one of them.
From there, the real story begins and the pace of the movie slows considerably. Veronica is thrown into deep mourning over her husband’s death. A series of flashbacks offer a glimpse of their relationship. In one moving sequence, the late Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind” plays as Veronica imagines being swept up in her late husband’s embrace. The haunting song sets the perfect tone for her sense of loss.
She is given little time to truly mourn, however. Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a dangerous man who is running for office, soon appears at her doorstep and chillingly informs her that Harry left behind a staggering debt that she now owes. (Veronica, you in danger, girl!)
Veronica is not alone in her predicament. Two other widows, Linda and Alice (Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki), whose husbands perished in the failed robbery, are also on the hook for money.
As Veronica goes about recruiting each woman, we learn more about their personal struggles, and in turn how the money could help them. They, along with a fourth woman, Belle (Cynthia Erivo), who agrees to be their driver, form a silent sisterhood, of sorts, to perform the heist and split the loot. “The best thing we have going for us is being who we are… No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off,” Veronica tells them.
Sounds simple enough, but make no mistake, this is no ordinary heist film. Although Widows’ grittiness has more in common with 1997’s Set It Off than this year’s lighthearted Ocean’s 8, the multi-layered subplots and characters set it apart from either film. Set in 2008 with a gritty Chicago landscape, the movie uses the many characters to touch on everything from class, race, greed, and female empowerment to corruption in politics and religion.
Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay with Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl). His direction keeps the viewer engaged. One poignant scene involved candidate Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) riding in a car after giving a self-congratulatory stump speech in the inner city. The audience only sees the car from the outside but hears the voices within. As he rides from the hood to his mansion, the façade of his life and candidacy is laid bare in striking fashion.
Some of the standout performances from the cast include Robert Duvall, who plays Jack’s racist father desperately trying to ensure the family’s political dynasty continues. His scenes with Farrell are among the film’s best. Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya also shines, going against type as a brutal and sinister drug dealer doing whatever it takes to get his brother Jamal elected.
If you’ve seen Davis as Annalise on the series How to Get Away with Murder, the character of Veronica might feel a bit familiar. Like Annalise, Veronica is, at turns, stoic, dour and weepy, wearing her coldness as an armor. She is also effective as the heart and soul of the movie.
The film doesn’t attempt to tie up every loose end and plot line, and sometimes that’s to its detriment. Fewer flashbacks with Veronica and Harry, and more scenes developing the rapport of the women planning the heist would’ve made their bond more believable. Also, a quicker pace in the first half would’ve served the movie well.
Much was made of singer Sade offering a new song, “The Big Unknown,” on the Widows soundtrack. That song, like Simone’s, fits the deliberate and moody vibe of many of the scenes. The movie isn’t without its flaws, but the direction, themes and, especially, the acting leave an overall impression that to paraphrase another Sade song, hit you like a slow bullet.
Widows opens nationally on November 16. For more info, go to www.foxmovies.com/movies/widows. Check local listings for show times.
Paige Elliott is the digital editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.