Intelligent Film Also Entertains Audience
In film, mass audience appeal and brains rarely ever go together. Yet, with his heist thriller Widows, filmmaker Steve McQueen proves that it is actually possible to make an intelligent film that is also appealing to a wide audience. Countless times have otherwise smart films been ruined by a director who fails to walk that fine line between carrying out a vision and satisfying the studio whose main interests lie in box office totals. Sure, McQueen’s latest, which he co-writes along with Gillian Flynn -- from Lynda La Plante’s British television series -- creaks and groans at times from the strains of its commercial fittings, but you’d be hard pressed to find anything, of late, that so successfully manages to have it both ways. Widows is smart and unpredictable with a dark, sardonic wit that courses through its veins, while at the same time remaining extremely violent and content with blowing stuff up.
McQueen smartly takes La Plante’s source material and updates it with a topical resonance by changing its setting from 1980’s London to modern-day Chicago. In actuality, it could be any American city, but that city’s current political, societal, and economic turmoil is as good a place as any to set his film that crackles with energy from greed, corruption, and inequality run amok. The city of Chicago is a major character in the film that features women who are forced to risk everything in a male-dominated world.
As the film opens, scenes of a crew performing a dangerous heist are juxtaposed against domestic scenes of the crew’s wives. Veronica (Viola Davis) is married to career criminal Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson). Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) is raising her three small children while running a dress shop. Polish immigrant Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) is an abused wife and a kept woman. The women don’t know one another, but are soon forced into a reluctant bond when they learn that their husbands were killed when police blew up the van in which they were fleeing a burglary.
If things weren’t already bad enough for the women, they are about to get much worse when the widows discover that their husbands were stealing from career-criminal-turned-politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) who wants his $2 million back in one month, or else. Keeping pressure on the women and ensuring that they stick to the deadline is Manning’s enforcer, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya).
Of course, they don’t have the money. But rather than give up, the widows -- strangers to one another and now with literally nothing to their names -- decide to carry on by finishing the heist their husbands were supposed to commit. Problem is, they know nothing about crime, heists, guns, or how to do bad things. But a notebook left behind by her husband gives Veronica the whereabouts of a stash of cash worth $5 million. It is up to the women who come from different racial, social, economic, and financial backgrounds to come together to achieve their goal. Though underdogs, Veronica reminds us of their advantage when she tells the others, “no one thinks we have the balls to pull it off.”
There are several side plots and twists that complicate their plan, however. The reason Jamal is so intent on getting his money back is that he wants to use it to fund his campaign for alderman in a Chicago district that is now predominantly African-American but has long been ruled by an Irish-American family headed by Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall). Mulligan has retired and hopes that his son Jack (Colin Farrell) can keep control of the seat from Manning. Action, suspense, intrigue, and danger follow as McQueen’s story plays out in a tumbling cascade of twists that foil our heroines’ plan at every turn.
There are very few directors working today who could pull off the feat that McQueen does with Widows. Before we know it, his story masterfully evolves from one of intense action and political suspense tinged with sexism and racism into one of female empowerment and independence as the women overcome their obstacles. There are a lot of balls to keep in the air, but McQueen never bobbles a single one.
And who knew that Viola Davis was up to the task of taking such a departure from the roles she typically plays. Her Veronica is the heart and soul of the story and we totally buy in to everything she is selling. We have never seen this from her, but she is totally dominant in her role as reluctant badass. The remainder of the cast is nearly perfect as well, including Kaluuya, whose enforcer character is quite the intimidating force.
McQueen’s biggest accomplishment with Widows is making a somewhat farcical action thriller and peppering it with plenty of violence, bullets, blood, and fire. All the things that action lovers want. Yet he also has lots of important things to say about the world in which we live today. And his film ends up being more than triumphant at getting those points across. From this point forward, there will be few excuses for a film that doesn’t manage to stimulate the brain while also entertaining the masses.
(Released by Twentieth Century Fox and rated “R” for violence, language throughout, and some sexual content/nudity.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.