Widows (2018) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A strong female crime thriller from Steve McQueen

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Steve McQueen’s new film “Widows” is a rare piece of work we do not encounter everyday. In addition to functioning well as a top-notch crime thriller which will grab your attention from the beginning to the end, the movie vividly illuminates many different social subjects including gender, race, and class while never losing its focus on story and characters at all, and my admiration on its thoughtful storytelling and skillful technical aspects grows more as I reflect more on how its genre elements work almost perfectly together.

The movie, which is set in Chicago, begins with a big heist which goes pretty wrong in the end. It was planned by a renowned criminal named Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), and we see him and his three accomplices being chased by the police during the opening sequence. They manage to arrive in their hideout, but then they find themselves confronted by the police waiting outside, and they get all eventually get killed by a rather aggressive response from the police.

While quite devastated by her husband’s death, Harry’s wife Veronica (Viola Davis) is soon visited by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a local crime boss who has been currently running for alderman in his district in Chicago. Jamal is the man from whom Harry and Harry’s accomplices stole no less than 2 million dollars, and he forcefully demands to Veronica that she should pay back 2 million dollars to him within one month.

Because she knows too well that she cannot get any help from the police, Veronica decides to take care of this urgent matter for herself. Through Harry’s loyal chauffeur Bash (Garret Dillahunt), she comes to acquire a notebook which contains every robbery plan developed by Harry, and she decides to execute one of his future robbery plans, which will get her more than 2 million dollars if it is successfully executed.

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Of course, she cannot do this alone, so she approaches to the widows of Harry’s three accomplices. While Amanda (Carrie Coon) refuses to get involved with Veronica, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) agree to participate in Veronica’s robbery plan because both of them have been in a desperate financial situation since they lost their husbands. While Linda belatedly comes to learn that she is going to lose her small business due to the gambling debts of her deceased husband, Alice comes to work as an escort because there is no money left by her dead spouse, and she does not like that at all even though she happens to get some nice guy as her main client.

Although these three ladies do not know nothing about robbery, they stick together under Veronica’s firm leadership, and the movie gradually dials up the level of tension as they begin to work on their robbery plan. While getting to know about the target in question, they prepare a number of necessary things step by step, and they are almost prepared for their robbery plan around the time when Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a beautician who has also worked as a babysitter for Linda, joins the group later in the story.

In the meantime, the movie slowly draws the big picture surrounding our ladies’ robbery plan. While Jamal and his brother/enforcer Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) are quite interested in what Veronica is planning to do behind her back, they also have to deal with Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who is Jamal’s opponent in the upcoming alderman election and was also incidentally involved with Harry. As the son of an influential power broker, Mulligan seems to be confident about the election, but he is actually concerned about the growing possibility of losing to Jamal, and his aging father Tom (Robert Duvall) is not so pleased about that.

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All these and other things in the movie are dexterously juggled by the screenplay McQueen and his co-adapter Gillian Flynn, which is based on the novel of the same name by Lynda La Plante. Smoothly and precisely going from one narrative point to another, their adapted screenplay makes some sharp points on its social subjects, and I like how that aspect is effortlessly presented on the screen under McQueen’s masterful direction. While his usual cinematographer Sean Bobbitt provides a number of seemingly plain but strikingly impressive visual moments to be appreciated, the editing by Joe Walker, who is another usual collaborator of McQueen, is succinct and efficient as subtly accumulating narrative momentum along the plot, and Hans Zimmer’s unusually restrained score, which appears only after the first 50 minutes of the film, is judiciously utilized at several key dramatic points in the film.

Above all, McQueen assembles a bunch of talented performers, who give one of the most distinguished ensemble performances of last year. While Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Cynthia Erivo are all superlative as fully demonstrating their considerable talent, the other notable performers in the film including Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson, Jacki Weaver, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Garret Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Jon Bernthal, Lukas Haas, Kevin J. O’Connor, Michael Harney, Matt Walsh, and Adepero Oduye are also excellent in their respective supporting roles, and Farrell, Henry, and Kaluuya are particularly entertaining to watch as the main shady figures of the story.

Despite the numerous positive responses it received from critics after it was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in last September, “Widows”, which is McQueen’s fourth feature film after “Hunger” (2008), “Shame” (2011), and “12 Years a Slave” (2013), did not draw much attention from audiences when it was released in US two months later, and that is a shame considering the first-rate result from its cast and crew. This is surely one of the most compelling films of last year, and I think you should check it out as soon as possible.

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