Review: Widows

Based on the trailers and the rapturous response coming out of the festival circuit, the hype for Widows as a bad-ass heist movie was at peak levels going into last weekend but it turns out the movie is much, much different than we were led to believe.

Starring Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez as the titular Widows.  Their husbands’ criminal crew in Chicago, led by Liam Neeson, stole $2 million from a local criminal (Brian Tyree Henry) and he wants it back in one month’s time.  Davis’ Veronica finds her husband Harry’s (Neeson) notebook, which details all of his heists, including one he never completed that is worth $5 million if pulled off.  Veronica recruits Alice (Debicki) and Linda (Rodriguez) and they later bring in single mom Belle (Cynthia Erivo) as their getaway driver. There’s also a corrupt politician and his father (Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall) and Daniel Kaluuya as Jatemme, the enforcer brother to Jamal (Tyree Henry), who is covertly tracking the new crew.  There is no weak link in the cast, as everyone is exceptional down to smaller parts by great actors like Garrett Dillahunt, Kevin J. O’Connor, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, and Matt Walsh. The main quartet is incredible, especially Viola Davis who has to put on a hard-ass demeanor even when there are half a dozen conflicting emotions bubbling below the surface and Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez are giving some career-high performances as well and, in Rodriguez’s case, playing against her normal Lettyesque bad-ass persona.  Cynthia Erivo also continues to prove herself an acting force after basically carrying Bad Times at the El Royale last month, portraying Belle as a mix of sweet, smart and strong.

The main issue for me (and it probably will be the strongest selling point for a lot of people) is that this is not the Heatesque heist/revenge movie we were promised.  It’s actually a very slow and methodical character drama about dealing with grief and women trying to build something that is fully theirs and escape the shadow of the men in their lives, which in hindsight makes sense from the director who brought us the bummer double feature of Hunger and Shame.  I would put the ratio of heist/crime plot and character drama at around 60/40, as there are long stretches that dive into flashbacks fleshing out Liam Neeson and Viola Davis’ relationship, which you slowly realize was not fully the romantic bliss that the movie literally starts on and things like Elizabeth Debicki being basically forced by her mother into becoming a high-end escort.  I’m not against character studies and slow drama at all but when you are pitched one thing and given another, you can’t help but feel a little betrayed. The frustrating thing is that the crime thriller stuff is incredibly well executed and I would have loved so much more of it. Everything Daniel Kaluuya is doing is amazing and terrifying and there are a few fun setup bits with Debicki, like her trying to buy the group’s guns and getaway van, that add some much-needed levity. The plot also features some brilliant and subtle seeds that pay off later in the movie and it’s a complicated but well-executed web of crime that respects the intelligence of the audience.  It does try to cram in just about every hot-button issue as well, from Trumpian politics to police shootings to the struggles of the inner city and some of that, plus some of the non-heist plots, could maybe have been streamlined to make the movie a more efficient thriller. The opening heist gone bad is also exceptional, where the movie places you inside the getaway van for the entire escape and you are immersed in the chaos. The actual heist the widows are planning is decently tense when executed in the finale but it feels too short and simple even though “it’s not really about the heist, it’s about the characters” someone pretentious would most likely say.

Widows features an exceptional cast doing amazing acting work and the plot is well executed with smart setups and interesting twists but this is not the heist movie I think we were all anticipating.  You’ll have to temper your expectations and get ready for more of a character study and a meditation on grief and other social and political issues, which a lot of people probably won’t be up for. I’m definitely disappointed we didn’t get a new Heat level crime thriller but the acting and the crime thriller elements that are here still make Widows worth checking out.

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