Brian Tyree Henry
2 Hrs., 12 Mins.
Widows November 26, 2018
n a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flash, Widows (2018) roars from zero to 60. The film opens, quietly, with an overhead shot of a middle-aged couple in bed, kissing with such ferocity that the verb “devouring” immediately came to my mind. But then, in a whiplash-like jerk, the scene moves from the sheets to the streets. Specifically in the throes of a car chase, replete with gunshots and tire screeches. Then, in another twist, we move from the car
chase to a dispute between the owners of a dress shop, then to two distinct segments depicting couples tensely talking as breakfast sits, waiting to be eaten, a few feet away. All but two minutes have passed. What do these tableaux have in common, besides being set in Chicago?
The car chase, which was brought on by a robbery gone wrong, turns out to be the connective tissue. Quickly, we watch as things go south. Police open fire on the getaway vehicle, and it, strikingly, is rendered as useless as a stick of stringed cheese being pulled apart by a child: For reasons unclear, it violently explodes. Everyone inside dies. The quotidian scenes, we learn, involved the men who were part of the foredoomed undertaking. The post-coital embrace co-starred the ringleader, Harry (Liam Neeson), and his teachers-union delegate wife, Veronica (Viola Davis); the entrepreneurial spat was between the pushed-around Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and her spouse, Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), who is one of Harry’s acolytes; one breakfast was between Florek (Jon Bernthal) and his blonde bride Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), whom he regularly beats; another was between Jimmy (Coburn Goss) and Amanda (Carrie Coon), who have recently become parents.
In Widows, the new movie from the British filmmaker Steve McQueen, these husbands will only be seen in pithy flashbacks. (Though Neeson, who appears in a number of passionate memories courtesy of Veronica, is fortunate enough to get something juicier: the recurring cameo.) The aforementioned women, who have for so long been able to ascribe to the “separating business from pleasure” axiom, will, in contrast, soon no longer have the privilege to throw around such a saying anymore.
The money that was stolen, and eventually burnt to a crisp in the back of the van, technically belonged to the Manning brothers (Daniel Kaluuya and Brian Tyree Henry), who are at the head of a Chicagoan criminal organization. (The older of the two, Jamal, who is played by Henry, was planning on using the cash for a South Side-benefitting project, a plan supplementing his run for alderman of the 18th ward.) In an early, scary scene, Jamal arrives, unannounced, at Veronica’s plush penthouse, and informs her that she has approximately one month to somehow earn back the money her late husband and his lackeys owe him.
The other widows are dealing with financial troubles of their own. Alice has next to nothing, which leads her mother (Jacki Weaver), who is intimated to be an abuser herself, to suggest she try out sex work; Linda’s shop is closed down, since Carlos has gambled away all their accrued money; and Amanda, about whom we do not know much for most of the movie until an odious reveal makes way later on, now has to make do as a single mother.
So when Veronica retrieves one of Harry’s cherished notebooks, which meticulously blueprints an upcoming heist job, a lightbulb goes off. Since attaining $2 million in the scope of a month is only really possible through criminal means, she not only decides to carry out Harry’s preconceived heist herself but also enlist the other women left husbandless by the warped job. The initial meeting, set at a ritzy spa, proves plenty persuasive. Linda and Alice agree to the plan, however daunting, though Amanda counts herself out, citing maternal busyness.
What I’ve just described might sound comparable to a standard genre film, with the only subversions amounting to the diversity and women-centricity of the ensemble. But Widows, McQueen’s first movie since 2013’s hallowed 12 Years a Slave, is only exteriorly a facet of the expendable subgenre that is the heist movie. Inexorable scenes orbiting around the scheming of it all, and tension-ridden exchanges between the characters (and, pointedly, between the primary performers and the disposable ones) are enlivened, with tension, by McQueen and his co-screenwriter, Gillian Flynn. The predestined heist, in every stage, foists cold blood and knee-jerks.
But what McQueen and Flynn seem most interested in are political and cultural trivia that might otherwise go unexplored in typical genre fare. The racial differences and class disparities resting between the characters are underscored, and inform the ease, or unease, of their relationships; a long-gestating subplot eventually explains that one of the characters was secondarily impacted by police brutality recently.
Also clearly disillusioned with the egoism that apprises the political climate, McQueen and Flynn not only amplify the corruption on which Jamal has built his platform but also the motivations of the latter character’s opponent, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who is the son of a blithely racist and misogynistic incumbent (Robert Duvall).
Jack, like his opposer, chiefly looks at political involvement as a way to fortify one’s power. In one of the movie’s most agitating sequences, McQueen places the camera on the exterior of the politician manqué’s car. He juxtaposes the egocentric conversations between Jack and his campaign manager (Molly Kunz) with some derelict Chicago settings, and ends on Jack’s palatial, gated mansion on the other side of town. What matters to the character, as expressed through his crass, stinging language, is the wellbeing of what could be a title down the road, not the city or its people.
The trouble with Windows is that, while these transitory but ever-present elements are spotlighted with great insight and urgency, they feel affixed to the narrative rather than embedded in it. The thriller characteristics feel, at certain points, like distractions from the social drama Flynn and McQueen seem eager to make but cannot completely devout themselves to because of heist-thriller loyalties. There is a sense of noncommitalism — Widows goes for the grandiose when it comes to its assortment of characters, subplots, thematics, and touched-on genres, but only fitfully is concerned with doing more than ephemeral explorations within each category.
Yet Widows is a riveting jumble. I think it manages to work so well, in part, because of its performances, which are uniformly robust. Davis is predictably potent; her portrayal is, per usual, a tour-de-force. But the biggest revelations are Rodriguez and Debicki, who are rarely offered material that has allowed them to move beyond type-casting. (Rodriguez has long been the near-invincible tough cookie — the embodiment of the coolheaded badass — and Debicki, the bone-skinny giant who looks like a runway stalker no matter the type of gussy-up, has for her short career most often been delegated the role of the impossibly glamorous vamp.) Formidable, too, is Kaluuya as the frightening enforcer (he calls to mind the scoundrel played by Richard Widmark in 1947’s Kiss of Death), Weaver as the pernicious mother, and Cynthia Erivo as a babysitter who gets wrapped up in the heist plot but who holds her own from the outset.
The ensemble is so collectively lucid that it, undoubtedly, holds down the material, which is mosaic enough to suggest that, with the wrong actors, all might feel like too much at once. Certainly, Widows often does. But that is, curiously, part of its thrill. Where most movies might pick a single flavor and more or less stick with it, this film doesn’t want to be locked-in or easily categorized. Evidently, Flynn and McQueen saw so many dramatic and thematic possibilities in the material that they couldn’t resist exploring them all. Their ardor and ambition are so infectious that even Widows’ defects are exciting in themselves; the fearlessness and conviction here is so uncommon that it would be impolite not to be at least a little enthralled. B+