Monday 19 November 2018

Film Review: Widows

Director Steve McQueen serves up a sharp Chicago crime drama with a sprawling ensemble cast and an unexpected helping of social commentary in Widows.

After her career criminal husband Harry (Liam Neeson) is killed during a job gone awry, grieving widow Veronica (Viola Davis) is lumbered with the task of paying back the man her husband stole from. Under threat of death, Veronica unites the other widowed wives of Harry's crew, and together they plan to execute the next heist Harry had on the slate.

Underestimated and unexpected, the unlikely allies must navigate a criminal underworld that is alien to them - all the while being caught in an increasingly ugly and intense election with corrupt politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) at its centre.

While the trailers for Widows are selling you one thing (a breakneck heist thriller), the film itself is an entirely different beast. For starters, this isn't a heist movie - not in the traditional sense. McQueen's film has no interest in being slick or tricky like Steven Soderbergh's Oceans films or 'pulling the rug' out from the audience in a third act flourish.

No, instead this is a compelling and confronting drama that uses a planned heist as its skeleton, building upward and outward in different directions until we're presented with a layered film that covers so much ground - poverty and the growing economic divide, grief, marital strife, modern racial tension, domestic violence, political corruption - and still makes it work. Seriously, all these themes and ideas perfectly gel in Widows, and it comes down to a sublime screenplay that balances a large ensemble cast to a tee. No part is too big, no part is too small - it all clicks together so that even roles that flit in and out of the narrative (such as Carrie Coon's grieving single mother) feel integral. In typical Gillian Flynn (who cowrote the screenplay) fashion, there are twists and turns aplenty, which drew audible gasps from the audience.

At the end of the day though, Widows can be distilled into one idea; this is a movie about women empowering themselves and taking back their lives. If one of the other threads doesn't work for you, it all comes back to the strength of this central idea - and a lot of this is thanks to the four terrific leads performances from Davis, Debicki, Rodriguez and Erivo.

Davis in particular commands the screen as a grieving woman who comes face to face with her late husband's sins. A passive part of Harry's profession, Veronica is given the choice of rolling over or stepping up the plate. Davis' steely resolve comes with a tinge of pain and uncertainty bubbling under the surface, highlighting a layered and complex performance. Debicki also shines as a victim of domestic abuse who won't let the world push her around any more.

Other highlights in the sprawling cast are Daniel Kaluuya as a psychotic henchman stalking Veronica's every move, and Farrell as the slimy politician who is only running for office because it's what his father (Robert Duvall) wants.

McQueen's slick direction is another element that sets Widows apart from your typical mainstream action thriller. When necessary, he ramps up the punchiness and the intensity; at other times, he uses the simplest of camera movements to tell a whole story in the background. It's distinctive and confident without being flashy or in your face. The editing is another strong suit, whether it's the frantic opening car chase or the cutting from past to present; happier times to desperate ones. Last but not least, I have to mention Hans Zimmer's pulsating score, which isn't used throughout the film but works in ramping up the intensity when it is.

The Verdict: 9/10

A blistering and biting crime drama that succeeds in balancing a lot of characters and covers a lot of ground before it peels off and ratchets up the intensity in classic heist movie fashion. Possibly Steve McQueen's best film to date and easily one of the best of the year.

Widows is in cinemas across Australia from November 22.

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