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Widows

It’s hard to believe that five long years have passed since Steve McQueen last directed a movie. You might think he would’ve jumped right back into the saddle after winning the first Best Director Oscar ever awarded to a black filmmaker, but it seems he was perfectly happy to take a hiatus while the rest of Hollywood scrambled to court the audience of 12 Years a Slave. No way it’s a coincidence that we’ve been seeing more talented black filmmakers and spirited POC-centric movies in the past five years, especially among the Oscar contenders.

That said, it’s clear that McQueen was not content to rest on his laurels. After winning Best Director and changing the course of the entire industry, McQueen had earned a ton of clout that he damn well used here. Widows reportedly cost twice the budget of 12 Years, and you can see it in the cast. We’ve got established talents like Viola Davis, Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya, Michelle Rodriguez, Jacki Weaver, Liam Neeson, and freaking Robert Duvall. We’ve even got the absurdly underrated Elizabeth Debicki, and the fantastic newcomer Cynthia Erivo. (Quick reminder: She made her debut earlier this year with Bad Times at the El Royale, and stole the whole movie in the process.)

But then we have a script from Gillian Flynn, a writer I’ve never been terribly impressed with. Yes, I know — I’ll see your Gone Girl and raise you a Dark Places. It took a filmmaking grandmaster of David Fincher’s caliber to make Flynn’s style of overwrought melodrama into anything worth watching, so I guess it’s a good thing we have the consistently wonderful McQueen staging this feminist heist picture with a racially diverse cast. Oh, and McQueen’s co-writing? Even better!

Our stage is set in Chicago, right at the intersection of politics and crime. The premise begins with Robert Duvall’s character, a racist and sexist old jackass who’s the latest in a long line of Chicago politicians, forced to step aside after a heart attack. The odds-on favorite to replace him is his son (Jack Mulligan, played by Colin Farrell), until a challenger emerges. Enter Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), an aging crime lord who wants to get into politics so he can legally get away with screwing people over, collecting bribes under the table like any duly elected alderman. All the while leaving his younger brother (Jatemme Manning, played by Daniel Kaluuya) to keep up the robbing and killing.

Into this mess comes a crew of thieves led by Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson). Long story short (too late!), a heist goes sideways, and everyone gets blown up along with the loot. Trouble is, that money came from Manning’s election campaign. So Manning wants his $2 million back, and he’s going to collect from Rawlings’ wife (Veronica, our de facto protagonist, played by Viola Davis), one way or another.

Luckily, Harry left his wife a notebook filled with all the plans and instructions she needs to pull off a relatively simple heist for $5 million. So Veronica gathers together the other wives who were widowed in the heist gone wrong, threatening to turn them over to Manning if she doesn’t get the money to pay him back.

First and foremost, the pacing is enough to make this an atypical heist film. Most heist movies are fast-paced by design, geared toward getting us from one step to the next. Compare that to this movie, in which our characters don’t even get around to casing the joint until 90 minutes into this two-hour movie. Rather, most of the runtime goes toward developing the characters and the setting. And sometimes, it doesn’t work especially well.

A prime example comes with a single extended shot that follows a car as it drives through the neighborhoods of Chicago. All the while, we’re listening to two people talking in the back of the car. It’s not like there’s any suspense or innuendo or anything, we’re just listening to these two characters talking in the backseat as we watch the Chicago scenery that has not a damn thing to do with what we’re listening to. It’s a weird choice, to say the least.

However, I’m happy to say that this is the exception, and most of the screen time is very well-utilized. In particular, the Mannings and Mulligans get more than enough screen time to establish themselves as legitimate threats. More importantly, they get enough time to help us understand the involved politics, stakes, motivations, etc. But far more screen time is given — and to much greater effect — to the development of our lead characters.

Veronica gets the lion’s share as our protagonist and substitute criminal mastermind. That said, there was a point when one character asked what Veronica was doing while the others were doing all the work. And heaven help me, I didn’t have an answer to that.

Mostly, Veronica whips the other ladies into shape, trying to make sure everyone understands that their lives are on the line and turn this bunch of law-abiding strangers into a fine-tuned group of professional thieves within a few weeks. Otherwise, Veronica’s brooding about her dead husband and their dead son. Yeah, I won’t go into details here, but they had a son who died a decade ago, and Harry’s death opened up a lot of old wounds. In summary, between acting like a hardass and withdrawing into her own anguish, Viola Davis is acting firmly within her wheelhouse here.

Next up is Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), the only one of our group who’s ever actually spent time in prison. We don’t get any specifics, but we do know that Linda’s husband turned out to be a shady money-squandering asshole and Linda’s mother-in-law blames her. So now that Linda’s husband is dead, the debt collectors are diving in and the mother-in-law is suing for custody. Thus — as with Davis — Michelle Rodriguez gets to elevate the whole movie just by doing what she does best: in this case, playing a woman with overwhelming attitude who’s not afraid to defend her loved ones by playing dirty.

Then we have Alice, played by Elizabeth Debicki. Here’s a woman who never learned any life skills — she can’t even drive! — because she was raised to be a trophy wife, dependent on men for everything. She went from an abusive childhood (her mother is played by Jacki Weaver) to an abusive marriage (her husband is played by Frank Grillo), taught the whole time that she’s a useless piece of shit good for nothing except to look pretty. She even takes up a job as a call girl after her husband’s death, so of course we also get into slut-shaming in the bargain.

Jennifer Lawrence reportedly passed on this role due to scheduling conflicts, and that’s for the best — just imagine this “trophy-wife-to-empowered-woman” arc acted out by Katniss fucking Everdeen. No, Debicki has more than enough range to make the character’s journey perfectly heartbreaking and uplifting, and without so much of an established screen persona to get in the way.

Last but not least, we have Belle, played by Cynthia Erivo. She’s not really one of the widows per se, as she didn’t have any connection to the initial heist gone bad. Though she does have some connections to our main heist, all too convoluted to recap here. It was a tall order, trying to bring a wild-card fourth character into the heist at the third act, and the filmmakers have to bend over backwards finding ways to set up the character before she joins the plot proper. Yet it totally works because Erivo makes such a strong impression with this wonderful character, and the chemistry with the rest of the cast is effortless.

Then we have the supporting cast. Liam Neeson elevates the whole film just by showing up. Jacki Weaver and Frank Grillo were sadly underutilized, but I didn’t mind seeing so little of their eminently hateable characters. Daniel Kaluuya is suitably terrifying, and Brian Tyree Henry has enough charisma to make his character work. Robert Duvall plays a wretched miserable fossil of a man, and he dives into the role like he’s too old to give any kind of fuck. Farrell’s okay, but never better than when he’s acting against Duvall. Garret Dillahunt is always a welcome presence, but his character might as well have been wearing a sign saying “I WILL DIE OR TURN TRAITOR.”

So, for all of the screen time and acting talent given to developing these characters, is there any greater point? Well, the main overarching theme appears to concern the things we leave behind. From the Mulligans’ legacy of crooked politics, to Alice’s broken emotional state under abusive parents and lovers, to Veronica getting stuck with the bill for her husband’s heist, pretty much every character is stuck with baggage handed down to them from others. Jack Mulligan says at one point that we all reap what we show. The movie seems to go a step further, saying that debts are always collected even after death. And if we can’t make amends for our own trespasses in life, our heirs and loved ones will have to do it, one way or another.

On a miscellaneous note, McQueen shows a terrible shortcoming when it comes to night shots. Long stretches of the climactic heist are incomprehensible because nobody knew how to shoot a night scene in a coherent way.

Widows¬†falls below the standard I’ve come to expect after McQueen’s outstanding previous work. I found the climactic heist itself to be underwhelming after all the setup, and Gillian Flynn’s brand of simplistic and blunt melodrama definitely leaves a mark. Even so, I found the characters to be nicely compelling, and the performances are fantastic across the board. It’s not very often you see this much character development in a heist movie. It also helps that the political aspect was coherent, there were some neatly satisfying third-act twists, and the themes about comeuppance and death are neatly expressed in an affecting yet subtle way.

I don’t see this winning too many awards, but it makes for a respectable nominee.

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