Beyond the grief of losing your spouse, the financial responsibility of a loved one’s death is often overlooked, especially if you happen to be down on income. However, if you’re the wife of a man who stole from a gang, being down on income is the tip of the iceberg. In Steve McQueen’s Widows, Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) finds herself in this situation, inheriting her deceased husband’s $2 million debt, which spurs her to complete his last planned hit. The film is full of manic, complex performances that once again proves no genre's off-limits for women on the big screen.
Set in Chicago, Widows follows Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew of thieves and the Manning Brothers—Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry) and Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya)—two gang members who thrive in the city’s underground. Their “work” is without a doubt illegal but provides security for Rawlings' crew’s families and startup capital for Jamal Manning’s political aspirations. When Rawlings and his team die during their last hit, Veronica assembles the other widows, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), to finish their last job, thereby paying off their secretive husband’s debts and creating financial independence for themselves.
With so many moving pieces to set this grand heist, the story would not land if it weren’t for the spectacular performances from everyone across the board. Viola Davis takes top billing and runs with it, wowing with a layered, emotional and calculated execution. On the TIFF red carpet, Davis stated, “this role was not written for a dark-skinned, 53-year-old African American with natural hair.” What a missed opportunity it would have been not to introduce this type of character from her lens. Elizabeth Debicki also provides a stellar performance as Alice, a domestic abuse survivor struggling to find her voice and identity. Her character’s vulnerability and chemistry with Davis provide some of the strongest scenes in the film.
Outside of the crew of widows, Daniel Kaluuya offers a standout portrayal as Jatemme. There’s no better way to describe his performance beyond “demented.” Kaluuya dives entirely into this role as the hands-on brother, casually causing violence at every turn. His mayhem compliments Tyree Henry’s Jamal, who has a more relaxed temperament, albeit, on the more off-kilter side of the coin.
Widows lags a bit midway through its runtime but for understandable reasons. The story takes on many political, racial and emotional themes while also setting the stage for the grand heist. We get to see how the politics of the 18th Ward, run by Tom and Jack Mulligan (Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell, respectively), are looped into a lot of the issues that the widows and the Manning Brothers face. But it causes some pacing problems that make the film stretch longer than necessary. Fortunately, when the film’s pace picks up, it indeed picks up. Adrenaline runs high as these women work to execute the heist, making for action-packed and beautifully shot scenes. They work to infiltrate the location with each woman assigned a specific task. Without spoiling it, a special acknowledgment goes to Cynthia Eviro, who plays Belle, a mysterious but gifted addition to the team.
Widows truly gives Viola Davis the leading film venue worthy of her talents and gives female characters the space to play a dirty game. The story is very ambitious with its twists and turns, but McQueen rises to the occasion and executes with flare. While many may view this film as a female version of The Departed or Heat, it does Widows a great disservice to call it such; there needs to be a space for female heist films to exist without mention of their male counterparts. Widows opens that space. With the formula of great action, political thrills and great chemistry and tension among the women, the end result is a film that can go the distance. Rating: 4.5/5