THE STORY – Veronica, Linda, Alice and Belle have nothing in common except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities. Tensions soon rise when they take fate into their own hands and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.
THE CAST – Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall & Liam Neeson
THE TEAM – Steve McQueen (Writer/Director) & Gillian Flynn (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 130 Minutes
By Jacey Aldredge
Don’t underestimate Steve McQueen. If there’s one thing to know about the Academy-Award winning director (“12 Years A Slave”), it is that he comes for blood, and nothing less. He’ll knock down your sense of right and wrong with just enough strength to make you wonder if you’ll ever stand again. Whether it’s by a brutal recounting of slavery in “12 Years A Slave” or visceral scenes of a manifested sex addiction in “Shame,” McQueen utilizes humanity’s own shortcomings as a way to force us into admitting our sins, both historical and emotional. In his remake of the 1980’s ITV show, “Widows,” McQueen continues his trend of point-and-shoot explosions to the gut, in ways that will feel unequivocally familiar and irrevocably distressing.
Set in contemporary Chicago during a time of police brutality, political corruption, and stark cultural separation, “Widows” follows four women as they reclaim their power after their crime boss husbands are killed in a heist gone wrong. Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) is the composed and stately wife of Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) – we get an idea of their marriage through flashbacks of lightly lit bedroom scenes and close-ups of feeling between the two. It’s a contrast between Rawlings’ night job as a crime boss, serving as leader of a four-man group tasked with robbing Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry), a candidate running against current 18th Ward Representative Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell). When Rawling’s crime heist goes awry, resulting in all four men dying in an exploding van, Manning sets out to regain his stolen 2 million the only way he can – by giving Veronica her late husband’s debt and a one-month deadline to get it back. His brother, Jatamme Manning (Daniel Kaluuya) serves as the cold-eyed and brutal messenger, and receiving a message from him is one you don’t come back from. Veronica decides to team up with two of the other wives (Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez) and one survivalist babysitter (Cynthia Erivo) to complete their husbands’ next heist, a 5 million job which would pay off the Rawlings’ debt to the Manning family and leave the widows with enough to get them by.
Each widow has their own story, their own backgrounds, and their own reasons for needing the cash. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) comes from the streets of a Latino Chicago and knows what it’s like to be imprisoned. Her two kids have kept her away from trouble, but when her dress store is repossessed after she finds out her husband used it as collateral to pay a debt of his own, Linda is backed into a corner. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) is tall, beautiful, and a classic representation of white-trash. Her husband, played by Jon Bernthal, hits her when she asks questions and then pokes the bruise later, but when he’s killed, Alice is deflated in grief. Her mom (Jacki Weaver) suggests she become a high-class call girl to pay the bills. Then there’s Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a hairdresser and Linda’s babysitter who gets wrapped up with the widows when she tells Linda she runs from the bus to “be on your dime” instead of wasting time. Linda’s run-worthy “dime” by the way is $12.50 an hour. Veronica, the only widow who seemed to come from a happy marriage, has gone through tribulations of her own as well.
If “Widows” seems tiresome in its nonstop portrayal of contemporary wrongdoings, you’d be right. It is tiresome. And necessary. McQueen forces you to watch what we hear about in the news every day with a no-nonsense outlook that will keep you awake at night. Every one of your senses will take a curb stomp to the face in “Widows,” with visceral sounds that serve as transitions between scenes of intimacy and love, and scenes of crime and grating violence. This type of juxtaposition of sound happens as early as the first five minutes, when an adoration-filled murmur from Liam Neeson’s character Harry as he lays in bed next to his wife mangles into the sound of an escape van’s engine roaring to life. In this way, McQueen manages to foreshadow the multi-dimensional culture shocks that will occur throughout the film’s entirety. “Widows” is undeniably well-captured, with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt finding the grit and grime in even the cleanest of white walls and pristine showers. There’s a theme of reflection throughout the film, via windows, mirrors, and windshields. Sometimes these reflections show the women in various states of grief, and sometimes the reflections show instead, the environments in which the women feel their grief.
An exquisite source of this reflection comes midway through the film, after a political rally for Jack Mulligan in his 18th Ward. He and his assistant enter his pristine black sedan, and as the car begins driving off, they engage in a heated discussion about the state of the projects and crumbling Chicagoan neighborhoods in his ward. The magic comes not from this conversation, but from the way it’s filmed. Instead of letting the focus be on the performances of the actors, their words develop more meaning because the camera is set on the exact environment they’re arguing over. The camera follows the black sedan as it navigates through debilitated streets and buildings, and we see the environment transition to the stately, foliaged and wealthy part of the city right in front of us.
McQueen uses psychological violence as his form of torture. There are multiple scenes in this film that will make you want to look away, take a shower, and go to church. And this is no more evident than when Daniel Kaluuya is on screen in a performance that is light-years away from what he showed us last year in his Academy Award nominated performance in “Get Out.” In fact, Kaluuya’s portrayal as the casually heinous Jatamme is truly phenomenal and terrorizing. He feels no remorse, a creative visionary who instills fear as a way to torture them before ending them. His victims are a game, and Kaluuya takes him time completing each one. Kaluuya has redefined the modern villain through the simplicity of a blank stare, turning up the volume loud enough to drown out the sounds of punching a man to a pulp, and facial expressions that are uniquely exaggerated as a way to give the perception of interest when there’s none at all.
The script in “Widows” lets these incredible performances shine; co-writers Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) invested their time in ensuring the audience understands the dastardly gravity of every action and reaction. Flynn writes with prowess and unadulterated complexity that weaves between different expressions of grief, fear, and a street-sense of survivalism. She unsurprisingly imbues the female characters in this film with a furrowed sense of boiling desperation. Their weaknesses shift to their strengths, and each widow regains her sense of power by the film’s end. This isn’t to say the film doesn’t come with its own sense of humor. For all the drama and high stakes, Flynn and McQueen alleviated the pressure with dialogue that allows you to breathe. Veronica takes her little white dog, Olivia, with her literally everywhere after an in-house threat by Manning – it becomes a running joke throughout the film. Also, when Alice is tasked with purchasing guns for their heist, she attends a gun show where you can purchase with cash, and approaches a woman to ask for help purchasing three Glock 17’s in order to “protect herself from her abusive husband.” The mother responds, “that’s a lot of firepower…” to which Alice retorts, “yes, I want one for every room.” It’s an ingenious screenplay that filters through tactics of fear, varying degrees of injustice and retribution, and enough violent extravaganza to make you remember you’re watching a representation of today’s current country splitting apart at the seams.
Holding the seams of “Widows” together is Viola Davis, who charges forward with the might and ferocity of a scorned woman with a life-threatening wound to the heart and mind. Davis chews up her role as Veronica in equal parts composure and voracity. She’s kicked down time and again but doesn’t ever let the bastards grind her down. Davis presents a searing performance worthy of awards recognition, one which will leave you shell-shocked and cheering all at once. She flips her skin inside-out, and by the end of “Widows,” she’ll flip yours too.
“Widows” is a masterpiece of contemporary cinema, navigating through themes of grief, injustice, and political wrongdoing the only way Steve McQueen can – with a whiplash brutality that will eradicate your sense of self and leave you wondering where we all went wrong. It could’ve been pure entertainment but McQueen and Flynn strived for something more — a brutal tale of a country run by power and corruption that has refused to change and is merely surviving. And now, finally, after centuries of injustice and imbalance, those who were surviving under this regime are the ones forcibly bringing about the change that is long overdue and necessary.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – “Widows” uses political and social strife as the backdrop to a powerful story of four women who will do whatever it takes to protect themselves. It’s a tour de force ride that will leave you disturbed, empowered and forever changed.
THE BAD – Nothing.