Directed by Steve McQueen.
Starring Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya, Carrie Coon, Cynthia Erivo, Robert Duvall, Jon Bernthal, Brian Tyree Henry, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Molly Kunz, Coburn Goss, Bailey Rhyse Walters, James Vincent Meredith, Eric C. Lynch, Michael Harney, Brian King, Ann Mitchell, Garret Dillahunt, Kevin J. O’Connor, Bailee Brewer, Lukas Haas, and Jacki Weaver.
Set in contemporary Chicago, amidst a time of turmoil, four women with nothing in common except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities, take fate into their own hands, and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.
The often depressing works from Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave and Shame) and twisty/satirical tone from the texts of Gone Girl novelist Gillian Flynn is an unlikely pairing, and while I was initially convinced that David Fincher’s adaptation of the aforementioned mystery thriller was a case of a masterful filmmaker elevating schlocky material by way of sheer talent behind and in front of the camera (Fincher got the first and what will likely be the only good performance ever from Tyler Perry, among several other fantastic turns from both respected and inexperienced actors), after having seen Widows (an adaptation of the 1980s British TV miniseries from Lynda La Plante) it is clear that she is an equal, possibly even a greater artistic presence, to whichever director she collaborates alongside.
Allow me to throw out a ridiculous comparison that will either make sense or prove that I have been playing too many video games from Rockstar (especially the newly released Red Dead Redemption 2); Gillian Flynn’s comical dialogue juxtaposed with bleakly serious storytelling (an incredibly effective tonal combination), or in this case, trademark single take shots, meaningful crosscutting, and restless outrage from both societal and political perspectives, all tossed in with gleefully entertaining violence and mainstream action set-pieces, evoke the two specific ingredients that put that gaming studio on the map, overflowing artistic integrity with not a single bit sacrificed by conventional narrative satisfaction.
In the case of Widows being comparable to something like Grand Theft Auto, even the deliberate setting of Chicago (the games always breathe life into a specific city) is just as much a character as any of the grieving turned empowered women rising up against a world dominated not just by men, but older generations never once hesitating to shove their antiquated beliefs down the throats of their offspring. I fully admit one can toss wrench into my analogy by saying no video games from them have ever depicted strong or abused women coming into their own happiness and independence, but excluding gender roles, the presentation of Rockstar games and Gillian Flynn adapted scripts are remarkably similar, typically resulting in vital commentary on current events through a comedy filter just as much as their overall commitment to delivering bombastic fun. One character asks where she is supposed to find guns, followed by another exclaiming “this is America”; that’s exactly something you would hear in one of those games.
With that said, I’m pretty sure Steve McQueen didn’t have video games on his mind when crafting Widows, but, if he has ever heard words from Oliver Stone on making Natural Born Killers confessing that he was so angry with the trajectory of America at the time, that the movie was his way of venting every last bit of frustration, it would make sense. He specifically referred to it as “throwing up on screen” rather than painting some beautiful portrait. Gender roles, political corruption, abusive men, gang violence, racism, misogyny, police brutality predominately against black males, and a dying generation on its way out continuing to either fuck things up worse for the young or offer no assistance whatsoever to even their loved ones are all topics touched upon in what is, when it comes down to it, a female-centric heist flick.
Aside from blowing this year’s Ocean’s 8 out of the water in terms of both presenting an ensemble of inspiringly unified and powerful women (Viola Davis barrels through her role with laser-focused determination masking her inner torment from losing her husband Henry, played by Liam Neeson, even if she never knew of his criminal activities until his death), the rave surrounding Widows is a shotgun blast fired back at any celebrity or fellow journalist convinced that stories, fresh or reimagined, are doomed critically at the hands of white male critics viewing movies through a prism or such nonsense. We do want films starring strong women and ethnically diverse casts, but we also want them to be good and have no problems calling a spade a spade.
It’s a no-brainer that Viola Davis is Oscar-worthy; she puts her heart and soul into everything no matter the size of the project. However, Widows also gives reliable actors such as Michelle Rodriguez a spotlight (which she certainly takes advantage of), and while it’s undeniably awesome that the women of color lead the charge, it’s Elizabeth Debicki who gives the second best performance in the film as a physically abused, now abandoned and financially destitute wreck entering the sordid high-class escort business. There’s a moment where Viola Davis’ Veronica finds out about Alice’s lucrative sexual favors, calling her out on her lack of respect for herself with expected gusto, subsequently followed by the two engaging in a slap fight that is unmistakably the DNA of Gillian Flynn. It’s a humorous scene wrapped up in a relevant and thoughtful exchange of disagreeing words; so much of the film is about females trying to get on the same page regardless of their lifestyle choices, pushing the notion that if they can, well, they would become indomitable. Such a theme makes the closing shot unforgettable.
The men are no slouch in their roles either, Colin Farrell plays a racist politician that appears to have inherited the racist part from his obnoxiously loud, 10x as racist father played by Robert Duvall. His campaign opponent is a crooked mob boss played by Brian Tyree Henry (the man the now dead husbands were stealing from in the first place, who Veronica now owes some serious cash to) and a black man that has a chance at winning thanks to some geographical altercations of the area, with his right hand man played by Daniel Kaluuya, a violent psychopath who will go as far as stabbing the physically disabled to accomplish his mission. In the grand scheme of things, obviously, they exist to make things considerably harder on the women, sometimes directly and other times indirectly, but it does feel as if the characters are less drawn than the women, which is definitely justifiable in many ways. Still, there are subplots such as a forced police officer shooting of a young black man that simply don’t work because they are plot points that crop up for the sake of it. Rage is a wonderful thing, and I applaud Steve McQueen for wanting to tackle as much as possible, but sometimes it’s best to pull back just a little bit for a more cohesive narrative.
It should also be mentioned that, just like Gone Girl, Widows contains some preposterous turn of events and a number of far-fetched elements. Make no mistake about it, this is still a crowd-pleasing heist flick, it’s just oozing with substance and righteous anger. It’s difficult to imagine anyone seeing the big twist coming, and it alone is worth buying a ticket for. However, there is so much more to Widows then popcorn fun; not only is it stylistically photographed (there’s an impressive tracking shot from outside a moving car as we watch the neighborhoods slowly rise up in value), but it’s also a movie where an actor’s height is used as symbolic imagery multiple times over.
Why choose style over substance when Gillian Flynn can keep teaming up with revered directors and giving us the best of both? Most importantly, Widows is empowering work, both conventional and artistic, that women all around the world deserve as a battle cry and testament to what they can achieve when setting aside their differences.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com