Don’t put “Widows” in a box.
The latest film from Academy Award winner Steve McQueen isn’t just one type of movie, no matter how much it may seem to be a simple heist thriller at first glance.
Chicago serves as the backdrop for the entire cinematic experience, and more than just a place for action to happen, “Widows” is a Chicago movie embedded with the violence, conflict, political turmoil and racial divide that gives that town its character.
So to say that “Widows” is a movie about four women forced together by circumstance to commit armed robbery is oversimplifying the poetic artistry McQueen crafts into a thrilling political, yet human drama.
This is a film about a city divided by race and politics, united by grief and greed.
A lesser heist movie would simplify its plot, shorten its running time and ramp up the action. “Widows” slowly burns over the course of two-plus hours to build up to larger themes, all the while providing terrific individual moments from the year’s best ensemble cast.
Oscar winner Viola Davis stars with a steady, yet emotionally wavering performance as Veronica, the de facto ringleader of the heist. Her work here is less demonstrative than usual as Veronica internalizes her grief and pushes it outward as calm, ruthless efficiency.
She’s especially good in quiet, tender moments opposite Liam Neeson played out in flashback, where the cool, almost sterile visual look McQueen develops accents the emotional distance playing out on screen.
Tough as nails “Fast and the Furious” star Michelle Rodriguez layers her usual powerhouse attitude with surprising depth while Cynthia Erivo more than holds her own going head to head with Davis in a compelling, yet underserved role.
But it’s breakout star Elizabeth Debicki who leaps off the screen as a battered woman seeking to come alive on her own after the death of her abusive husband. The vulnerability she is able to meld with her character’s growing confidence is captivating to watch as Debicki wanders through her character’s self-exploration.
The men of “Widows” are equally effective in their savagery, especially when it comes to the two-faced politicians who square off throughout the film.
Colin Farrell turns in his best performance in years as the rising star of a socially and politically affluent family, mirroring wry charm with inner spite towards the African American constituents he tries to court votes from. In this same regard, Oscar winner Robert Duvall chews up the scenery in limited screen time as Farrell’s aging father, a soon-to-be-retiring alderman exerting as much power as he can before his influence runs out.
Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya and Brian Tyree Henry give complexity to what could have easily been mustache-twirling villain roles and further a growing trend within 2018 cinema to explore the motivations of bad guys in a compelling, character-driven manner.
Quiet but not soft, gritty but not rigid, “Widows” transcends its heist movie categorization and reaffirms that elite level filmmaking can supersede expectations in genres with a middling catalog.
McQueen presents an alluring and captivating feature without all the bells and whistles prevalent among modern action flicks. Each camera movement feels remarkably intentional and deliberately crafted for an expressed purpose that gives “Widows” a stoic intensity that allows audiences to burrow in on the mesmerizing performances McQueen is able to pull from his actors.
Camera placement is essential to what the film does (and doesn’t) want to reveal to its audience. “Widows” also features the most intense world-building pan shot in recent memory following Farrell crossing invisible lines of segregation while driving a few city blocks that feel like miles apart.
Scenes may feel out of touch at first glance and the pacing may be tepid, but the snowball effect the film develops as events spiral towards the conclusion are immensely rewarding.
The film’s relative shortcomings at the box office have stifled award season discussion, but make no mistake, “Widows” is a more than viable candidate to win any category it’s nominated in.
Once a virtual lock for a Best Picture nomination, McQueen’s film may not make the final list of 8-10 movies for the top Oscar prize. With Davis coming off a win for “Fences” two years ago, a Best Actress nod is to be expected and Debicki’s breakout turn could easily take a Supporting Actress prize.
Quiet and deliberate, “Widows” is a commanding, arresting experience that rewards audiences willing to let themselves be pulled into an interwoven tale of crime and corruption, race and class, politics and prejudice.
Hands down one of the three best films of the year, “Widows” demands to be seen on the big screen and will reverberate in moviegoers’ minds long after the credits roll.