In Widows, the power of Daviss performance is that she lets you know, in every scene, that Veronica is living in a world of treachery.

Steve McQueens real-world heist movie gives Viola Davis a powerful role as a crime widow who takes cold-eyed command of her desperation.

Speaking on stage at the Toronto International Film Festival, right before the premiere of Widows, his first movie since 12 Years a Slave (which was five years ago), director Steve McQueen talked about how important it was to set movies in the world of real, recognizable human beings. A lot of us would second that sentiment, yet its still not what you expect to hear from someone whos introducing a heist film. The genre has been around in a major way since the early 50s, and the template has always been this: When characters get together to plan and execute a robbery, we may see the quiet desperation of their lives, we may taste an ashy undertone of cynical reality, but its really all about the trip-wire cleverness of the crime itself. Heist movies unfold in a caper-film bubble, and that, one way or another, is their key pleasure.

But Widows, as McQueen implied, is another story. Its a movie in which three women, whose husbands all perished in a robbery gone wrong, band together to steal $5 million, even though none of them has the slightest experience at acting like a criminal. And the web of dire circumstances that lead them to hatch this scheme in no mere set-up its the dramatic heart of the movie. Widows, adapted from a British TV crime drama that was first broadcast in 1983, has a script co-written by McQueen and the novelist and screenwriter Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects), and it presents an enjoyably dark and sleazy vision of ordinary lives intertwining with the hurly-burly of street thuggery, local machine politics, and half a dozen other forms of daily corruption.

The movie, set in contemporary Chicago, opens with Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis) and her husband, Harry (Liam Neeson), who happens to be major crook, kissing the hell out of each other in bed. The simple fact of a mixed-race marriage presented this casually is still startling to see in a mainstream movie, to the point that we cant help but invest this passionate pair with a certain romantic idealism. But thats snuffed pretty quickly. Their early moments are intercut with a turbulent chase, seen from the vantage of a getaway van with its back doors banging open, that ends with Harry and his crew being fired on by the police, until the van explodes into flames, killing all the men onboard. So much for domestic bliss.

Veronica is suddenly a widow. More than that, shes a widow whose husband left her owing $2 million. Thats how much he stole from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), whos running for alderman of his ward, but hes also a strong-arm crook who demands that Veronica liquidate her assets, including the sprawling penthouse she lives in, to pay him back.

Viola Daviss commanding performance roots this scenario in icy fear and shock. Veronica cant believe whats happened to her (overnight, she has lost everything), and her eyes tell you that she knows its just going to get worse. She keeps having flashbacks to her life with Harry, including one where they nuzzle to Nina Simone singing Wild Is the Wind. Its hard not to notice that Davis, her hair cut short, her eyes beams of fury, would be an ideal actress to portray Nina Simone. She has that kind of force.

In Widows, the power of Daviss performance is that she lets you know, in every scene, that Veronica is living in a world of treachery. Shes the victim of violent bad luck, and of crooks whove given her a month to come up with an impossible sum of money. But the way McQueen stages the movie, its also saying that shes the victim of a society thats no longer looking out for us. Its every man every woman for herself. The dialogue in Widows is thick with salty insults, and McQueen creates a hypnotic panorama of everyday corruption that feels less like a crime caper than like something out of a Robert Altman film or a Richard Price novel.

For a while, it works brilliantly. The first half of Widows is one moment of playful threat after another, whether its Jamal Manning coming over to Veronicas apartment to set the stakes, or his thug brother, Jatemme played as a scary slit-eyed sociopath by Daniel Kaluuya, from Get Out taking random stabs at a man in a wheelchair to get the information he wants, or Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the politician whos trying to hold onto the alderman seat thats been in his family for 60 years, manipulating his constituents and the media with a program called Minority Woman Own Work, or Jacks father, Tom (Robert Duvall), making toxically explicit the racist undercurrents of their political reign.

Harry, in death, has left Veronica a notebook that includes the blueprint of a robbery he didnt get around to committing. As soon as she takes one look at it, Veronica knows shes going to carry out that heist as if her life depended on it. Which Daviss feral presence tells you it does.

Veronica enlists her two fellow crime widows because theyre natural allies, and she has no one else to turn to. Tall, willowy Alice (Elizabath Debicki), whose husband was a wife-beater, takes the bad advice of her mother (Jacki Weaver) and markets herself on a website for companions, which leads her to connect with a real-estate player (Lukas Haas) who thinks everything is a transaction. Meanwhile, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), a holy-hell firecracker, discovers that her husband was gambling away the rent money on her clothing store, so she has less than nothing to lose.

Widows tells the tale of a robbery committed by three women (with a fourth, a hairdresser played with unflappable moxie by Cynthia Erivo, as their driver), yet its as far from Oceans 8 as you could get. Its a reality-based feminist caper-thats-not-actually-a-caper. The movie has at least one twist that will shock you, and its galvanizing to see Davis seize the kind of role she doesnt have to cozy up to. The dialogue has the snap of witty danger thats become Gillian Flynns trademark.

Yet Widows, while a highly original and entertaining variation on the heist film, isnt a home run. The robbery is more violent than clever, which is part of the point. It, too, unfolds in the real word, rather than the lighter-than-air Hollywood world of Rube Goldberg frippery. Yet given how smart a movie Widows is, theres something a touch haphazard about the way that the heist connects to everything that has come before it. Many of the films dramatic scenes are so striking that its almost as if Widows would have been a better movie without the heist. (In that case, though, it wouldnt have passed muster as a commercial thriller.)

The strongest aspect of Widows is the way the movie gets us and keeps us rooting for its desperate-living heroines. Theyre way past the point of just wanting to have fun (the subtext of almost every heist movie); theyre less concerned with comeuppance than sheer survival. Widows presents their plunge into existential crime as a raggedly noble crusade. Yet while the film is stuffed to the gills with observations about race, sex, class, politics, and the scars bred by a newly indifferent America, Widows also leaves you wondering what the movie would have looked like had it been a little more irresponsible.


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