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In Theaters: WIDOWS (2018)

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WIDOWS
(US/UK - 2018)

Directed by Steve McQueen. Written by Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen. Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Liam Neeson, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Garret Dillahunt, Lukas Haas, Jon Bernthal, Kevin J. O'Connor, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Molly Kunz, Matt Walsh, Coburn Goss, Michael J. Harney, Adepero Oduye, James Vincent Meredith, Josiah Sheffie, Tonray Ho. (R, 129 mins)

Following 2008's HUNGER, 2011's SHAME, and 2013's 12 YEARS A SLAVE, British filmmaker/video artist Steve McQueen's winning streak continues with the heist thriller WIDOWS. Though it's McQueen's most commercially accessible work yet, it's got more going on beneath the surface, mixing contemporary concerns into a story with a decidedly '70s aesthetic, one that manages to be a stylish, Michael Mann-inspired crime saga, an introspective, Robert Altman-esque character piece, as well as a chronicle of big-city political corruption that feels like vintage Sidney Lumet. Based on a British TV series created by Lydia LaPlante that ran in 1983 and 1985, WIDOWS has been both streamlined and expanded for its American incarnation by McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn, the latter quick to point out in interviews that the one whopper of a mid-film plot development is all LaPlante, despite it having Flynn's GONE GIRL style and execution written all over it.






McQueen opens WIDOWS with an initially jarring series of smash-cut snippets that quickly settle into a masterfully economic display of concise exposition. Chicago career criminal Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) lives a life of luxury in a penthouse apartment with his wife Veronica (Viola Davis), a former rep for the Chicago teacher's union. Veronica is as aware of Harry's "business" as she needs to be and seems to feign blissful ignorance while enjoying its many financial benefits. That comes to a screeching halt when Harry and his crew--Florek (Jon Bernthal), Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and Jimmy (Coburn Goss)--are killed in an explosive shootout with police following a high-speed chase after their latest score. Immediately following the funeral, Veronica is visited at home by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a well-known south-side crime kingpin who was robbed of $2 million by Harry's crew. That money burned up with Harry and the others and he gives Veronica a month to get it back, threatening to send his ruthless, attack-dog younger brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) after her if she fails to pay up.


It's a sign that Jamal isn't quite ready to let go of his past life, even as he's trying to go legit at the same time by running a high-profile campaign for alderman of the city's economically-depressed and predominantly African-American 18th Ward. It's a spot that's been held for three generations by the corrupt Mulligan political dynasty, currently being handed off by elderly and ailing Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall) to his son Jack (Colin Farrell), the scion who's inheriting a storied legacy that he doesn't really want. With her back against the wall, Veronica reaches out to the widows of Harry's partners--Carlos' wife Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), violent meathead Florek's battered wife Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and Harry's wife Amanda (Carrie Coon)--to carry out a haphazardly-sketched heist from a notebook of Harry's, one that will net them $5 million--$2 million to repay Jamal and $3 million to split among themselves. Amanda, preoccupied with a four-month-old infant, declines to take part, and when Jatemme kills Harry's loyal driver Bash (Garret Dillahunt) to send a message to Veronica that the clock is ticking, they need a driver. They find one in hairdresser Belle (Cynthia Erivo, so memorable in the recent BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE), a casual acquaintance of Linda's who's been babysitting her kids while Linda meets with Veronica and Alice to plan the heist.


All of these characters cross paths in unexpected ways, and WIDOWS manages to pack quite a bit into its brisk and relentlessly-paced 129 minutes. There are times where it feels like things are too simplified or convenient, most notably when Alice's gold-digging mom (Jacki Weaver) convinces her to become a de facto escort for some easy money, and her first "date" is David (Lukas Haas), who happens to be a big-time architect who spots a blueprint of the heist target on her bedside table and instantly recognizes it as a panic room and eventually helps identify its location. There's also Alice pretending to be a Russian mail-order bride at a gun show and effortlessly convincing a red-state mom to buy her three Glocks. And of course, Veronica's dog, an adorable little Westie that accompanies her everywhere, seemingly holding on to it in desperation as the last connection to a family that's been taken from her (she and Harry had a teenage son, whose death ten years earlier will prove to have a profound effect on the events that transpire), but is really there as a plot device that's instrumental in setting up that mid-film twist.


From the standpoint of commercial, mainstream storytelling, McQueen's handling of these sorts of things could use a little more polish, but WIDOWS makes up for its occasional narrative clumsiness with a stacked ensemble of award-worthy performances, the standouts being the always-galvanizing Davis, a terrifying Kaluuya, who makes Jatemme one of 2018's great bad guys, and Debicki, whose character gets the most surprising arc, revealing her unexpected smarts and ambition as the one who most transcends her lot in life as an abused doormat for her asshole husband and narcissistic mother. The political gamesmanship between Farrell's Mulligan and Henry's Jamal almost has enough going on that it could warrant its own movie, but it serves its purpose as part of a greater mosaic that McQueen is constructing, both thematically and artistically. There are several arresting visual touches ranging from the use of reflections in windows and mirrors (the final scene in the coffee shop!) to one long, uninterrupted take involving the younger Mulligan's limo that's a total knockout telling you all you need to know about his character. In the end, despite some occasional hiccups that might seem smoother on repeat viewings, WIDOWS is a terrific and compelling piece of grown-up filmmaking--the kind that can credibly and successfully coexist in the multiplex and the art-house--the likes of which we don't see enough of these days.


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