Starring Viola Davis, Liam Neeson, Michelle Rodriguez, Colin Farrell
Directed by Steve McQueen
A bunch of widows carry out a daring heist their dead husbands in a criminal gang were supposed to do.
You may be lulled into thinking that this could be a Desperate Housewives joke, an Ocean's 8 rip-off or some kind of caper comedy with the gals winking secretly at each other in a swanky party full of rich dumb folks to steal from.
Instead, from the pulsating opening sequence of the main character, Veronica Rawlings (How to Get Away with Murder's Viola Davis), slurp-kissing her bank robber-husband, Harry (Liam Neeson), juxtaposing starkly against the urgent fleeing of a robbery careening spectacularly wrong, the mood here is one of extreme seriousness.
Brit director/co-writer Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave) is a very serious filmmaker. Apparently, he first saw the 1980s TV crime series in Britain which this flick is based on — also called Widows — when he was just 13 years old.
Back then, he was intrigued by the show's bold, early-#MeToo theme — a group of ordinary, helpless and clearly underestimated women transform themselves into robbers to take their destiny back into their own hands.
Now, his big-screen adaptation, with the setting changed from London to a more ruthless and corrupt Chicago, is all business with a large cast which, from the first minute, doesn't fool around. Basically, McQueen makes a female-driven, character-filled urban crime drama for sleazy windy city Chicago what Ben Affleck has been doing for Boston with his own thrillers like The Town.
Widows is intense, gripping, expertly acted out and — as can be expected because such morally subversive plots thrive on things being not always what they appear to be — typically convoluted. But convoluted in a smart cause-and-effect, collision-and-collusion way which, although it's a tad too overwritten, makes the story actually tighter than it looks.
Put this down to co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn's (author of Gone Girl) dexterity and McQueen's skill in giving many of his actors — Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Daniel Kaluuya, Elizabeth Debicki — equal opportunity in commanding their scenes, thus making his excellent diverse cast seem to all stand out at once.
You may find this crime drama to be snaking around too much and too long in too many holes. But every small moving part is actually tied in with the entire big moving part which is anchored centrally by the very compelling Davis as the first among equals here.
As Veronica, a teachers' union representative, she is the film's wounded heart, cerebral mastermind and no-nonsense den mother, balancing a range of emotions — bewilderment to despair to fear to anger to steeliness — after her comfy life of high-end apartment, fluffy dog and loyal chauffeur is suddenly turned upside down.
The woman has no idea that her late wealthy and perfect hubby Harry was actually a big-time robber who's left her with an impossible, big-ass debt to repay a very scary enemy. Sounds crazy but hey, maybe Osama bin Laden's wife didn't know what her man did for a living either.
Just this evolving performance of Davis alone in the various stages of grief, pain and gain in her growing resolve to overturn her bad deal is worth the ticket here. “No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off,” she explains her simple modus operandi to her crew of left-behind women.
McQueen is a dude primarily interested in stories about good flawed people being put under pressure and duress by bad flawed people. You know this because in the prevalent dark tone of this sober drama, there is a criminal underpinning to everything supposedly legal and legitimate — politics, business, family, love and even the church — on the surface of Chicago here.
After Harry's gang is blown up in their escape van by the cops in a botched robbery — Neeson mostly cameo-checks out of the picture after this truly explosive start — Veronica finds herself being hounded by a violent black crime boss, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry from TV's Atlanta), from whom her hubby had stolen US$2 million.
It is debt by association as Manning personally comes knocking on Veronica's door demanding the money back for his political campaign to win a seat on the influential city council against his equally dirty, family-entitled white rival, Jack Mulligan (Farrell in very entertaining heir-to-the-throne form), who's being harried to win at all costs by his nasty, racist Kennedy-esque patriarch father (a scenery-chewing Duvall).
Man, you'll feel as terrified as the poor missus because every powerful SOB here has a dubious agenda to be a really mean bastard and Big Thug Jamal has an even scarier enforcer-brother, Jatemme (Get Out's Kaluuya), who's so dead-eyed frightening he should nail any Gangsta Oscar next year. You just have to see what this psycho does to people who rap too close to him.
Turns out that the wives of Harry's accomplices are clueless about their husbands' double identities too. Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez), ex-con and mom, is swept aside by mercilless debt collectors thrashing her clothing store. Alice Gunner (Guardian of the Galaxy Vol 2’s Elizabeth Debicki) is left so broke by her abusive husband she finds herself with nothing to sell except a very long slim body.
Veronica contacts them after she finds Harry's secret heist notebook detailing a safe somewhere in the city — they need to find out where it is — with enough loot to solve all their collective money woes. I tell you, the way these gals meet in a steamy hot sauna is actually quite symbolically funny in the way they shed the clothes, sweat, baggage and fat of their lousy dead hubbies off them.
This female circle planning their tentative entry into crime is fun to see. Especially the tall Debicki who's a standout literally from the way she towers over everybody, particularly in an amusing gun-show scene filled with rednecks and long weapons.
But what's also fascinating in Widows is the shadier, sinister male side of the movie that's running concurrently. Both criminally-dirty political candidates (played to very effective lizard level by Farrell and Henry) are oily sleaze balls negotiating, conspiring, lying and intimidating their way through an underbelly so stinking it makes the ladies' guilty consciences seeming to need only a quick visit to a confession booth to redeem themselves.
If you're astonished at how openly corrupt this town is, remember that this is Chicago, the land of opportunity for gangsters and politicians alike, sometimes in the form of the same person.
The key to preventing all this from becoming two movies is, of course, the captivating Davis, who despite having a team around her, remains essentially a defiant soul apart. Her Veronica Rawlings is as central and pivotal to this intertwining tale as she stays unsentimentally untwined. “If anything goes wrong, you're on your own,” she warns her assembled Catwomen.
You're sucked into her stone-cold vortex of empowerment, abandonment and necessary evil, and you root for her survival even as she spits out no prisoners. This woman is all business after the boys have had their fun.
Just like Me Too. (***1/2)
Photo: TPG News/Click Photos