Movie Review: “Widows” – Criminally Good

Written by Jeremiah Greville December 13, 2018

Wow. I wasn’t expecting Widows to be as good as it was going in, but wow. It’s the best crime film of 2018 and one of the best heist movies ever made. And funnily enough, it’s not the heist that makes it good. Widows is a special film, with the kind of swirling deep narrative that pulls you in and threatens to take your breath. And yet, as heavy as it is at times, it never loses momentum or stops entertaining. It’s a heist film that delivers heist fun. And yet, it’s a crime film that deals with racism, classism, profound violence, and loss. This time, the grownups get to have their cake and eat it too. Widows is a mature, weighty film of substance that doesn’t skimp on violence or intrigue, and a popcorn thriller to rival the best of them.

Widows is directed by Steve McQueen from a script he wrote with Gillian Flynn. It’s based on a British TV series from the 1980s, though no prior knowledge is required. Viola Davis stars as the widow of a famed bank robber who is killed along with his accomplices in a dramatic heist. When she’s threatened and forced to pay back the money he stole, she recruits the widows of her husband’s former accomplices to pull off a job and set things right. Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki co-star as her partners in crime, while Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell and Daniel Kaluuya also appear as parties interested in or affected by their efforts. Liam Neeson and Robert Duvall also share some screen-time, but their roles are limited.

“No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.”

There’s not a lot to criticize with this film. After 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, McQueen’s next project as director was always going to come with steep expectations. Following a Golden Globe and Academy Award Best Picture-winning historical slave narrative with a crime drama was a big risk, but he pulls it off. Widows is a powerful film, careening along like a precision-fired cannonball. When it hits, it’s devastating, but seeing the long arcing trajectory of it take shape is extraordinary. This is a crime film structured like a drama and paced like a horror film. It’s emotional and raw and sometimes genuinely surprising. And yet with all of that it still maintains its pure pulp energy and dark lurid fun.

Widows alternates between classic heist tropes and the drama of the lives of the central figures. It deals honestly with the pressures of loss, and the realities and self-delusions that set in after the fact. Yet each dramatic moment is counterbalanced with a heist beat — scenes of gang violence, surprising humour, or setup. In this sense, Widows creates a rhythm that’s hard to escape. It’s a teeter-totter balancing act, leaning so deeply into both ends that you always expect to fall, but don’t. That rhythm builds as the film progresses to the inevitable heist crescendo, and an ending that begs to be discussed. The violence is visceral and thrilling, but never outlandish. The world the film inhabits is grimy and flawed. This is not an Ocean’s film — this is Heat. This is The Dark Knight.

“You reap what you sow.”

But it’s the cast of Widows that makes the film work so well. Viola Davis is captivating as a woman forced to act out of desperation while holding it all together. She’s long been an actress who can portray world-weary sadness and calm authority all at once, and here she walks that emotional tightrope in every scene. Widows is as much a movie about gender as it is about anything, and Davis’ performance highlights the way women are forced to bend under pressure, but never allowed to break. Her character is a fascinating study in agency and circumstance. The world forces her to act, but it’s the choices she makes in the face of expectation that propel the movie forward. This is a plot-driven movie with character-driven themes.

Elizabeth Debicki is wonderful as a formerly abused widow forced to turn to escort work to get by. Flynn and McQueen’s script provides her with the strongest character arc of the film. In what could have been a thankless and throwaway one-note role, Debicki brings humour and strength, depth and determination. Daniel Kaluuya is delightfully menacing as a mob enforcer circling the widows’ lives. He brings an animalistic charisma to some of the film’s best scenes, even if he doesn’t bring much else. The rest of the cast is superb — there are no weak links to mention — but Robert Duvall does earn some special praise as an elderly racist trying to hold onto power in a changing world. While Liam Neeson also appears throughout the film, it’s mostly in flashback, so don’t get too excited.

“This is about my life.”

Widows is filled with challenging material that lends the movie its considerable weight. Racism sweeps through the narrative, as the heist builds upon a looming election between white and black candidates. McQueen doesn’t shy away from the class and race divisions that arise, and doesn’t hide behind easy answers or characterization. Every character is flawed, while every conflict is more than it appears. Widows is all about layers and context, and intersecting lives and experiences. That’s why, while it certainly is a fantastic heist film, it falls more closely under crime drama than anything else. But let’s be clear — the heist is great too. You’ll just care about it for different reasons.

Widows is wonderful. It asks a bit more of its viewer than the lighter Ocean’s films, and isn’t as technical or precious about the central heist, but it’s also not trying to prove anything. It tells a story, and tells it well. Due to a smaller marketing push, Widows may fall under the radar for many. Don’t let that stop you. If you want a heist film with adult stakes and a solid emotional core, you’ve found it. The cast is great, the heist is thrilling, and the journey there is fantastic. Widows is the kind of film that fans always beg for and rarely get. It’s a genuine holiday treat — don’t miss out.

My Rating: 8.5/10

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About Jeremiah Greville

Jeremiah Greville is a pretty rad beard that's attached itself to a human face. The beard likes movies, television, comic books, and gentle finger rubs. The human likes pizza and sleep. When they work together, they write reviews. Hope you enjoy them!

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