A new power couple has emerged in the Hollywood film circuit. Steve McQueen, the director known for his painter’s eye and visual esthetic has combined powers with writer Gillian Flynn, known for her dynamic characters and impactful endings. Together, they’ve created the best heist film since The Usual Suspects. Starring Viola Davis, Widows is a gritty masterpiece seething with revenge, political cover-ups, and the struggles of modern womanhood. I’m already eager for this duo to team up again.
It’s not often a film begins with an impassioned kiss. Against pristine white bedroom decor, Davis and Liam Neason mime the history of their characters, the Rawlinses. At first, they are tender with one another. Quickly the lovemaking becomes violent. The phrase, “a gnashing of teeth” springs to mind. The entire scene crescendos to a literal lion’s roar and a hard cut to black.
Instantly McQueen and Flynn have established a world of passion, survival, and misdirection. One of the best things about any McQueen film is his ability to exploit a location in order to ink out the story the land tells geographically. Chicago is the perfect setting for this thriller. The city’s hodgepodge of styles is intertwined to reveal the different lives of the haves and have-nots.
In one of my favorite scenes in Widows, political nominee Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), having just been lambasted by a journalist for embezzling charge, races away from his campaign stunt in the lower 18th ward. McQueen sets the camera just outside the vehicle. Mulligan unloads on his wife that he never wanted this life, that he’s exhausted by all the pretending. The black SUV rolls past broken down buildings and dirty streets. Without ever cutting away, the vehicle leaves behind the squalor in the span of a few blocks before arriving at the palatial mansion of Mulligan.
This is peak Chicago. Section 8 homes are within spitting distance of some of the richest zip codes in America. Four of the last eight governors have been charged with a crime in Illinois. Theft plays a big role in Widows. When Veronica Rawlins’s (Davis) husband is killed by the police during a heist with his crew, she is devastated by the loss. However, she isn’t allowed to mourn long. Notorious gangster and political nominee Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) learns that Mr. Rawlins died stealing his money. It turned to ash in a fire. Manning gives Mrs. Rawlins one month to find and deliver $2 million.
Widows asks the same question that all of Flynn’s work asks. How well can you know the people you claim to love? With her adept pen, Flynn brings Lynda La Plante’s 1983 novel of the same name to thrilling life. The current of suspicion runs so deep in this film, I often found myself distrusting the main character. That sense of the unknown made for a wickedly good time at the theater.
Davis as Veronica Rawlins is sensational. Davis wears grief like a second skin. The weight of it makes every task a sludge through the formality. Just under the skin of the grief is the persistent prodding of rage. Rawlins is alone. She’s been thrust into a volatile world of crime and she owns nothing except her husband’s crime journal.
Veronica Rawlins should be looking for a safe route out of town. But she’s played by Viola Davis and is, therefore, a survivor. What I truly loved about this Ms. Rawlins is she’s a teacher. It shines through in the way she gives homework assignments, questions her husband’s old acquaintances, and plans a rehearsal for the heist. Fans of Davis’ character Annalise Keating from How to Get Away With Murder will be excited to see a different take on this archetype.
The Widows cast is stacked. Jatemme Manning, played by Daniel Kaluuya, is Jamal Manning’s right hand. The pairing of Kaluuya and Henry is an interesting one. Both have recently reached outstanding peaks in their career. Kaluuya has garnered fame for his roles in Get Out and Black Panther. Henry just left Broadway and was nominated for an Emmy for his role as Alfred Miles on the hit TV series Atlanta.
Here, they push each other to sell two different kinds of sinister. Henry is a gang kingpin trying to legitimize his money by entering the corrupt world of Chicago politics. He isn’t in it for the fame or glory. He’s out to reach another tier of crime currently inaccessible to him. Henry does a fantastic job balancing physical enforcer and charming pundit. Kaluuya is a shark who always smells blood in the water. The way he stalks into a room lets everyone know he is king of the ocean. His eyes are black pits that never flinch. Kaluuya is genuinely terrifying.
Michelle Rodriguez does a fine job as Linda, a now single mother whose store and entire life belonged to her gambling-addicted husband. Usually the badass tomboy, it is strange to see Rodriguez be uncomfortable holding a gun. Widows is the first film in a long time to test Rodriguez’s range. She pulls it off.
Cynthia Erivo is magnetic. A hairdresser, daughter, and mother with her mind on her money. As Belle, Erivo never stops working. She literally races between multiple jobs. When the opportunity for a much bigger score comes along, she doesn’t hesitate to get what’s hers. Erivo could knock Tom Cruise off his pedestal as the most cinematic runner. Every second she shares the screen with Davis crackles with electricity. Please find a vehicle for these two women to share the screen again.
The surprise performance of Widows goes to Elizabeth Debicki. As Alice, Debicki plays a woman who has been physically and emotionally abused her whole life. Though saddened by her husband’s death, his demise turns into her freedom. Debicki imbues Alice with wonder. That distinct feeling of learning to stand on one’s own, to speak the truth for the first time in a long time. Her journey is incredible because it does not downplay or overdramatize the struggle of rehabilitation. Debicki has been quietly impressive in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 and The Man from Uncle. Here, she has found a role that could make her a household name.
Widows was my favorite film of the Toronto International Film Festival. Empowered and deeply flawed women over 40, starring in a who-done-it heist thriller, written and directed by the most interesting people working in Hollywood was always going to be a success. Worth the price of two tickets.