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‘Widows’ is more than it seems

| Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Ruby Le

The premise of Steve McQueen’s “Widows” is basic enough: Four criminals die in a shootout while robbing a gangster, leaving their mourning wives to recompense the money lost when the getaway car explodes. From that simple starting point, the film reveals itself as a pitch-perfect exercise in the heist-movie tradition of escalating complications. As Viola Davis’ Veronica learns, her husband Harry and his crew stole from the Mannings, a pair of African-American brothers transitioning from crime into politics. Jamal Manning, played by the increasingly ubiquitous Brian Tyree Henry, is running for alderman in his black Chicago district against the entrenched Irish-Catholic Mulligan family. McQueen and screenwriter Gillian Flynn tie these disparate threads together into a remarkable film that serves as both a popcorn flick and a heady examination of grief and how people change in the face of immense pressure.

Flynn expands on her script, adapted from a 1983 British TV miniseries, by using the genre-film framework of the movie to address aspects of multiple contemporary concerns. Throwing in references to #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and political corruption in modern-day Chicago, Flynn crafts the best — or at least the most entertaining  Hollywood script since her own “Gone Girl” expertly interrogated toxic masculinity at the beginning of the Twitter age. True to form, Flynn laces her screenplay with plenty of concise dialogue — more acidic than acerbic, like Aaron Sorkin without the blind idealism. Her best line was the closing shot of the film’s trailer and hits with even more impact in the finished product. While she is pleading with the other titular “widows” to complete their husbands’ last heist, Davis succinctly explains why they can finish the job: “Because nobody thinks we have the balls to pull this off.”

Of course, Flynn’s dialogue is only as good as the actors delivering it, and “Widows” has perhaps one of the most star-studded casts in recent years. Michelle Rodriguez, Carrie Coon and Elizabeth Debicki join Davis as the bereaved wives, with “Bad Times at the El Royale” standout Cynthia Erivo entering the game late as she makes the case to earn her EGOT — only an Oscar away — sooner rather than later. In an inspired bit of casting, Liam Neeson plays against type as Veronica’s scumbag husband, while Colin Farrell attempts a shaky American accent as Jack Mulligan, a rich white alderman trying to keep his tenuous grip on his Chicago district. It’s saying something when Robert Duvall and Jacki Weaver, with nine Oscar nominations between them, seem to be the most outclassed among the film’s stars. There are no fewer than four actors doing career-best work here, with Rodriguez and Debicki reaching a level previously unseen from them and Davis matching her immediately legendary turn from “Fences.” Even more so than those women, no one is more impressive than Daniel Kaluuya, fresh off a star-making role in “Get Out.” In that film, Kaluuya was a flawless audience surrogate, reacting to the horrors he faced at the same time we did. In “Widows,” Kaluuya is that horror. As the wonderfully named Jatemme Manning, Kaluuya plays the enforcer role with a terrifying dead-eyed intensity; he makes the mere act of turning up the volume on a television leagues more frightening than anything you’ll find in a horror film this year. Kaluuya has been mentioned often in the last year as a potential James Bond replacement once Daniel Craig vacates the role; after “Widows,” it would be a shame for him to play anything other than the villain.

“Widows” is a passion project for the British-born McQueen, who introduces each screening of the movie with a recorded testimony explaining the importance of watching the original series in his formative years. He is at the top of his game here; like David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh before him, McQueen has brought arthouse methods into the multiplex. The opening of “Widows” introduces each robber and their wife by inter-cutting shots of their domestic lives with a kinetic car chase that momentarily makes you wonder which Steve McQueen made “Widows” — introspective character work working in conjunction with unfettered adrenaline.

It seems as though every major release these days contains a one-take shot, and the impact and technical difficulty of that maneuver seems to be cheapened each time it shows up in a blockbuster. For every “oner” like the brutal fight scene in “Atomic Blonde,” there are five like the weightless casino set piece in “Black Panther.” McQueen almost single-handedly validates the one-take here, with a pair of shots that balance storytelling with pure movie-making bravado. The first circles a freestyle rap, of all things, as Kaluuya stares down a failed lackey; even though we know how the scene will end, the audience can’t help but jump at the sudden stop of the scene’s denouement. That shot is merely a warm-up for the movie’s best scene. McQueen’s camera follows Farrell as he leaves a campaign speech in a dilapidated empty lot in Chicago and stations itself on the hood of his car as he is driven from the area where his black constituents live all the way to his own estate on the farthest edges of his district. For five minutes, the camera pans back and forth from each side of the car as the empty lots and liquor stores give way to brownstones. The entire time, Farrell is giving an off-screen monologue that reveals the depth of his racism and corruption. With one take, McQueen tells his audience more about the world of his movie than a lesser director could do with five scenes.

“Widows” is McQueen’s first film after winning Best Picture with “12 Years A Slave.” Where all three of his previous movies dealt with the depravity and corporeal pain humans enforce on each other, this one concerns itself with the emotional impact mourning and betrayal can have. This isn’t to say that McQueen has totally forgone violence in his first mainstream movie; when the bloodshed does come, it hits like a slap to the face. Where some directors would have maybe played into the entertaining side of the script and sanded down the rough edges, McQueen does not compromise. He correctly assumes that by telling his story in an unflinching way, the audience will have no choice but to be drawn in.

No scene better explains the experience of “Widows” — and it is an experience — than the very first one. The opening shot of Davis and Neeson amorously kissing is quietly audacious in that we rarely see people of their age, or Davis’s color, demonstrating such passion onscreen. That is the entire movie in a nutshell: The audience is drawn in by an easily digested plot and A-list stars, only to be presented with discourse that challenges any of their preconceived notions about what Hollywood films are capable of. Just as Davis and Neeson’s kiss inverts a familiar movie trope, “Widows” holds an entire genre at gunpoint and demands your attention. It’s a minor filmmaking miracle that two luminaries at the top of their game in McQueen and Flynn teamed up to tell this story. They’re the only two who could; nobody else would have the balls to pull it off.

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