“Widows” review by Nate Blake

Directed by: Steve McQueen

Rated: R

Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tree Hnery, Daniel Kaluuya, Brian Tree Henry, Jacki Weaver, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson

Widows is the latest film from 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen, who assembles a stellar cast and crew to tell an excellent heist story that is also the best Chicago-set film since The Dark Knight.

This is McQueen’s first film since 12 Years A Slave, and while on the surface a heist film seems worlds away from a historical drama about slavery, this is a film that is very aware of social and political issues. McQueen explores these issues deftly, allowing commentary to come out slowly through the characters and settings. He and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt get everything they can out of the Chicago setting, which really feels like a character here.

There’s a scene playing on repeat in my head where a white politician gets into his black limo and has a discussion with his aide while driving through a neighborhood he desperately needs to win over but doesn’t understand and really feels nothing but contempt for. Most directors, in the interest of keeping the actors faces onscreen, would place us inside the limo to watch the characters have this discussion. McQueen keeps the camera outside the car, and we can’t even see the characters through the tinted windows. We hear their conversation unfold over several minutes as the limo travels through the neighborhood; the camera panning every now and then to give the audience wide glimpses of the community and its people. This changes the viewpoint of the scene and emphasizes how intrusive and disrespectful the candidate is. That’s how much thought went into every shot of this film.

I may have gotten ahead of myself a bit. The film is about several women whose criminal husbands are killed in a job gone wrong. In order to pay back a crime boss, the women devise a plan to steal several million dollars from a candidate who is running for alderman of a South Side precinct. His opponent is a crime boss from whom the women’s husbands stole $2 million.

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The trailers did only a fair job of setting up how much of an ensemble piece this is. It really looked like Viola Davis would steal the show. She is thrilling here as Veronica, whose husband Harry (Liam Neeson) left behind a notebook with plans for the heist she enlists the other widows to execute. Davis is absolutely Oscar worthy here, and so is much of the rest of the cast. If Widows isn’t among the Screen Actors Guild nominees for Best Ensemble, expect me to throw a tantrum.

Credit must be given to Gillian Flynn for her thoughtful and twisty script, which allows some big names to make small but memorable appearances. This is an impressive group of performers and no one feels wasted or stunt-cast. I can’t think of a bad performance anywhere in this movie. I do want to mention Daniel Kaluuya specifically, as I don’t think he is getting the kind of buzz he deserves for playing such a memorable villain. He may be the film’s least developed character, but he is an unsettling force in every scene.

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Hans Zimmer’s score was a little underwhelming. It seems clear by now that one of McQueen’s stamps as an auteur director is to use very little score as possible. This was very effective in 12 Years A Slave, as that film relied on diegetic music during some of its most potent moments. It made Zimmer’s score, when it did appear, more jarring and effective. Here, it’s not terrible, but it mostly is used during the heist scene or the planning stages of it. The music bears more than a slight resemblance to the bank robbery score from The Dark Knight.  It doesn’t take away from this film but it doesn’t add much either.

I’m looking forward to watching Widows again and I highly recommend seeing it. Opening weekend audiences gave it a B according to Cinemascore. Don’t listen to that rating, I don’t know what those viewers were expecting. Maybe they wanted an action film from start to finish and that’s not what this is, but the audience I watched this film with was enthralled. I don’t know what it is, but you’ve probably experienced it too, where you’ve been in a theater full of people and without saying a word to any of them, you could tell they were enjoying the film just as much as you were. That’s how I would describe my experience viewing Widows. It’s the kind of film where people clapped and cheered at certain moments and gasped aloud as plot twists were revealed. It’s what great directors and screenwriters aspire to create but all too often fail to achieve. I’ll be talking about this film for a long time.

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