Back in 1983 ITV in Britain released a series called “Widows” that chronicled the exploits of a group of wives whose husbands died in a botched robbery leaving them to pick up the pieces and perform their own heist. Now, 35-years later, that story is the basis of a film, also called “Widows”, that is said to have been a passion project for Oscar-winning Director and co-writer Steve McQueen. It’s received a bit of award season buzz and has been on my watch list for some time with the premise serving as somewhat of a more serious take on the gender-swapped heist movie similar to “Ocean’s 8” earlier this year. The film intrigued me enough to take a look and see if it’s worth all the buzz surrounding it or if it’s just an overrated heist movie that should be skipped. So, without further ado, this is my review of “Widows”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Widows” stars Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriquez and Elizabeth Dubicki as Veronica, Linda and Alice respectively, wives of a group of professional thieves who live in different realities at home. Veronica lives in luxury, Linda deals with her husband’s back door deals, and Alice is physically abused. After their husbands, led by Veronica’s husband Harry (Liam Neeson), are killed in a botched heist the widows become the target of the robbery victim Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a crime boss attempting to become the first black alderman of the South Side precinct of Chicago, and his enforcer brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) who want their money returned. Veronica is willed a key that allows her access to a ledger where Harry recorded all of his heist plans and she decides to take on her husbands final planned heist to pay off the debt. She recruits the other widows and a fourth woman named Belle (Cynthia Erivo) to pull off the heist and come to realize a larger conspiracy is at hand involving Manning’s opponent Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) that puts their lives and the success of the heist at risk.
“Widows” is a finely made film in my opinion and one that, judging by box office numbers, is being criminally ignored. It all starts with the amazing cast especially the women who lead the way as the titular widows. Viola Davis is an absolute powerhouse as the leader of the group who lives a life of luxury and had the perfect marriage that was stained by a family tragedy prior to the film’s events. Her world is flipped upside down and she has to find the strength to make up for her husband’s failure which forces her to become a badass and take charge of her life for the first time in years. Davis dominates the screen. Like her character she demands attention every time she’s in a scene and always possesses this cautious confidence that shows her character’s determination but also clearly reveals that Veronica is outside of her comfort zone. It’s almost like a survival instinct. She needs to pull off this job or she’s going to face consequences, but there’s more to it. This isn’t just for her survival. This is to prove something to herself and that’s a perspective that bleeds into the rest of the cast too.
The two women that flank Davis are Michelle Rodriquez as Linda and Elizabeth Debicki as Alice. Both of these women hold their own in this film bringing attitude, confidence and believable evolution to their roles. We see both women have to adapt the same way as Victoria but where Victoria has to downgrade her life these women see it as an opportunity to advance their lives forcing them to be more confident in themselves in the process. Debicki specifically is a great character who finds herself finally fighting back against her abusers through the strength she finds as she prepares for the heist. In fact she probably has the biggest evolution of any of the women in this story and I found it genuinely entertaining to watch her go from meek tool to a strong and confident woman. That’s actually kind of the theme of the film too. These women, along with their partner and driver Belle played by an equally capable Cynthia Erivo, are taking charge of their lives from men who controlled them for years. It’s a timely feminist concept that doesn’t overpower the narrative but permeates it all the same. Everything they do comes down to one fact, that no one thinks they could pull it off because they are women. They’re underestimated, stepped on and abused by not only their own lovers but the world around them because of their gender and their perceived inferiority. While stealing is never a good way to prove anything it’s really neat to see these women decide the one way they want to show the world who’s boss is to pull off a heist only their husbands could figure out so perfectly and it’s a thrill ride to watch filled with tension, emotional struggles, and truly impactful character moments that add real weight and stakes to their chosen mission.
On the other end of that spectrum is a different conflict with the Mannings who actually seem to believe that these women COULD pull off a heist as the enforcer brother Jatemme shadows the women throughout their planning. Jatemme is played by Daniel Kaluuya of “Get Out” and “Black Panther” fame and he is incredibly fun in this role. He’s a violent man with a great personality unafraid to play with his prey and confident enough in himself to never even consider failure as a possibility, let alone an option. That makes him a cool foil for the women to have to avoid. It also makes him a big part of some of the most violent scenes in the movie which brings me to another of this film’s best aspects, the absolutely relentless brutality of it all. Jatemme is so unpredictable and each time he was on screen I was heavily invested in what he was going to do, when he would do it and how he would do it. This made the stakes very real for the widows because we, the audience, have an understanding of how these women could be treated if they fail. When the heist finally does take off variables really do come into play keeping their plan from being a pitch perfect generic heist attempt scene in all too many cinematic products. These women may not succeed, and they all know the consequences of failure which kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time waiting to see who would or wouldn’t escape the mayhem.
There are so many elements of “Widows” that makes it a great dramatic thriller. It takes time to develop characters, allows the actors and actresses to have fun with their performances and provides an engaging story that’s complimented by a smooth script, neat camerawork and cinematography and a carefully crafted tone that stays solid throughout the entire picture. I’ll go so far as to call it one of my favorite thrillers of 2018. It’s that fun. It has some issues I’ll speak on in just a moment, but I can’t stress enough how well crafted and directed most of this film is from the characters to the heist itself and the eventual outcome. Sure there are bound to be plot holes and things like that in a heist film, but “Widows” presents everything so perfectly you don’t even care to read that deep into it. It’s that fun and engaging.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
With that said though there were some elements that worked AGAINST the film in terms of storytelling which impact the quality of the overall product. The first of these is a big twist that I won’t spoil here, but I can still talk about it a bit without giving too much away. There’s a big reveal in the final act that is not only presented way too soon but, in my opinion, undermines the emotional impact of the story as a whole. Come to find out from researching the series this movie was based on this twist is actually in keeping with a piece of the source material’s storytelling but when it’s revealed in the movie it’s not only sudden and unexpected, it’s a true “what the hell” moment that wasn’t satisfying for me at all. Thankfully it only plays a very small part in the finale, but as obvious as the twist is in hindsight, I wish it didn’t happen. The story was doing so good without it and it did not require the forced conflict the twist brings with it to be a great story. It just didn’t sit well with me and felt added on for the sake of shock value despite it not really being that shocking or that interesting of a twist by the time it comes around.
I also felt that the story structure was a bit all over the place with select aspects of the narrative. One of the most obvious oddities is how Cynthia Erivo’s character Belle is handled. She’s introduced in the first half of the film basically for the simple purpose of establishing her motivation. Then she’s completely ignored for half the movie. I’m not kidding. She comes out of nowhere to join the team to fill a gap and is all of a sudden completely up to date on the plan in a matter of a day. After that she’s smoothly transitioned into the group, but I feel like there was some confusion as to how to include her character considering she wasn’t supposed to be involved until a later segment of the movie.
On the flip side Colin Farrell’s character Jack Mulligan, the political opponent of the crime boss seeking retribution from the widows, gets a lot of development yet I still found it very difficult to get a read on who he really is. Now one could say that makes him a great three-dimensional character and yes, to some extent it does. But it also makes him a confusing person to invest in especially considering the part he plays in the story. One moment he’s a legitimately compassionate politician, the next moment he’s a corrupt legacy boy trying to follow his dad’s footsteps, the next he wants out of politics, then he’s aggravated because he’s falling in the polls, then he’s confident he can win, then he calls his dad out for being such a bad person. He’s all over the place and I could NEVER get a read on who exactly this character was supposed to be. While “Widows” does great to establish its leading ladies, other select members of the cast are either confusingly overwritten or frustratingly underutilized which, to me, was the biggest flaw in the writing of this film. It’s not enough to write this movie off as a failure on all counts, and many viewers may actually find these characters easier to identify with, but for me these roles just lacked focus.
“Widows” is a very good film. A great film in fact despite its flaws. Yeah some of the characters are written and developed a little odd, but let’s face it we came to see the titular widows in action and not only are they played perfectly and developed well they also deliver on the badass nature of the narrative. I could have done without the big twist but the rest of the film flows nicely from one scene to the next taking time to dwell on the emotional impact of everything taking place and the high stakes of the heist being planned. The characters and story have room to breath and evolve making for a terrific thriller of a heist film that balances some fine drama and storytelling with great direction and committed performances to back it up. Maybe it takes itself a little too seriously, but “Widows” is a passion project that deserves respect even if there are blemishes that slightly stain it’s presentation. I had a lot of fun watching it and I highly recommend it.