Directed by Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”), co-written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”), and starring the great Viola Davis, “Widows” is smart, soulful and surprising in every frame, weaving statements on race, gender, crime and grief into a tick-tock (and tip-top) heist plot. Rating: 4 stars out of 4.
“I have a business proposition,” says Veronica (Viola Davis), in tones so cool they practically crackle. It’s a classic heist-movie line, in a not-so-classic heist-movie setting: Veronica, wrapped in a white towel, is in a sauna with three other similarly clad women (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Carrie Coon), making them an offer they can’t refuse. She pours water on the sauna’s rocks, creating a sibilant hiss, like a co-conspirator. It’s unbearably hot in that room, but they’re shivering; so are we.
“Widows,” a movie so good I wanted to marry it, has that kind of tension in every scene. Set in contemporary Chicago (it’s loosely based on Lynda La Plante’s 1980s British TV series and novel), it centers on Veronica, who in the early scenes is struggling to keep her steely composure after the sudden death of her husband, Harry (Liam Neeson), a career criminal who was one of four armed robbers killed in an attempted heist. She’s left with nothing but her grief (compounded by, as we slowly learn, the earlier death of their only child), and when pressure is applied to her by a local politician (Brian Tyree Henry) to whom Harry owed money, Veronica realizes she needs to take desperate measures. Rounding up the widows of the other dead robbers, she proposes that they finish the job.
Directed by Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) and co-written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”), “Widows” is smart, soulful and surprising in every frame, weaving statements on race, gender, crime and grief into a tick-tock (and tip-top) heist plot. One sequence is shot entirely out of a moving car’s window; as its occupants argue, we watch how quickly the Chicago neighborhood outside that window changes. Every detail tells a story: a faded row of Obama posters; the L train sneaking into view like a snake; the bright, anonymous sterility of Veronica’s home; the way a dangerous man strokes a dog ever so gently.
But what keeps you transfixed for two hours, occasionally forgetting to breathe, is that murderers’ row of actors, each capable of cutting glass with a gaze. I could go on forever about how good the casting is in this film, in parts large and small, but will single out just a few: an utterly chilling Daniel Kaluuya (“Get Out”); Jacki Weaver, creating an entire world in just a couple of minutes of screen time; Cynthia Erivo’s electric way of creating charged silence; Debicki’s fierce portrayal, in equal measures poignant and funny, of a woman slowly waking up. And oh, the great Davis, whose Veronica goes from howling to the heavens in pain to crisply becoming the ultracompetent manager of The Big Job; hiding her grief away where nobody can steal it — unless they happen to look very closely at her eyes. If all heist movies were like this, I’d never leave the multiplexes. Brrr.
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★★★★ “Widows,” with Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Garrett Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Jacki Weaver, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson. Directed by Steve McQueen, from a screenplay by Gillian Flynn and McQueen, based on the novel by Lynda La Plante. 129 minutes. Rated R for violence, language throughout and some sexual content/nudity. Opens Nov. 16 at multiple theaters.