Review: Widows Is a Ferociously Feminist Powerhouse Of a Film That Deserves All the Awards
Five out of five killer Viola Davis outfits.
Widows is the best film I’ve seen all year, hands down. It might be one of the best films I’ve seen period. It certainly works as a modern noir and the best heist movie we’ve seen in ages, but I long to see it be defined by future Oscar victories, especially for the script and for the performances.
Between director Steve McQueen’s terrific direction and a sharply written script from Gillian Flynn, it is suspenseful, engaging, and fiercely feminist in how it depicts female rage and empowerment.
While I would recommend not getting spoiled for this film, a brief summary shouldn’t hurt. Widows centers on a group of women whose husbands are killed during a heist gone wrong. When Veronica (Viola Davis) discovers her husband had died stealing money from local crime boss turned politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), she has a month to complete the heist and get him his money back. Without any choice, she enlists the other widows to join her, including Linda (Michelle Rodrigeuz), Alice (Elizabeth Debecki), and Belle (Cynthia Ervio).
The plot is very simple, a heist we’ve seen a thousand times before. What makes it different is the outstanding character work in the script, bolstered by intense leading performances. Veronica, Linda, Alice, and Belle might have familiar character beats at times, but they never slip into tropes or behave in the way we expect. Bringing Flynn onto the project was a smart decision, as she is known for writing immensely complex women. Here, her characters burn off the screen, embodying the grey space most heist movies only want to give men.
To go any longer without speaking about Viola Davis would be a crime. Davis holds the ensemble together; to say this is her best work is difficult when every time she graces the screen she gives a career-best performance. However, you can see how much the role means to Davis in her work here. She elevates every scene as the team leader with a ferocity that is unmatched in a role I feel like I had previously only seen white men take. Her arc is not about her “softening” or becoming more gentle. She is a woman marked by grief, who is fighting tooth and nail for her life. It makes the quieter moments that much more powerful because she is shown to be multi-faceted, rather than a one note role.
“I was struck by the fact she had a husband that she loved. The fact she was motivated by love and grief — I have to say that I simply don’t get those roles. I just don’t, even after the Oscar,” Davis said following a screening of the film at the Chicago International Film Festival.
“You will not see that,” Davis also said at an industry screening of the opening scene of the film, which shows Veronica and her husband (Liam Neeson) passionately kissing in bed. “I don’t care how much people say they’re committed to inclusivity — they’re not committed to that … the opening shot in this movie where you have a dark-skinned woman with a big nose and wide lips and all of that and her natural hair kissing — romantically kissing a white man onscreen.”
She’s right. Veronica is a rarity, and to cast Davis to play her is a stroke of genius as well as a powerful moment of representation. Davis elevates the material to new heights with her turn. To say she deserves another Oscar for this role is perhaps an understatement. She practically needs it.
It is a testament to the rest of the ensemble that they all easily keep pace with Davis. Rodriguez, who I’ve been a fan of since LOST, brings a vulnerability to the role that isn’t overshadowed by her toughness. Ervio needs to be in everything going forward following her turn here (I have yet to see Bad Times at the El Royale but knowing she’s in it makes me more excited than the promise of a Hollywood Chris).
But the supporting actress who steals the show is Debecki, in another role that could have easily been the trope. A battered wife with an abusive mother, Debecki’s inner strength blazes through the screen as she does what she needs to escape her life and reclaim agency. If Fox will push any of the ensemble for Supporting Actress, they should throw their weight behind Debecki’s star-making turn.
It’s also wonderful to report that the four women have stellar chemistry. I could watch the four of them read a phone book together. The casting team truly deserves recognition.
The male characters are not as interesting as the women, but not by much. Colin Farrell’s sleazy and slick politician Jack Mulligan is somewhat of a frustrating enigma, but Henry as Jamal Manning is chilling; he gets a scene with Davis that skyrockets the tension for the rest of the film.
If Fox wants a third ticket to Oscar glory this year, they have to throw their weight behind Daniel Kaluuya as Jatemme Manning, Jamal’s brother and enforcer. Kaluuya is downright chilling in every scene, and you find yourself unable to take your eyes off his performance. It’s a far cry from the misguided W’Kabi of Black Panther or tortured Chris of Get Out. Here, he is shown to be pure evil, and Kaluuya proves that he should become a Hollywood legend if he continues to get roles that showcase his talents like this.
Of course, it’s impossible to speak of the film and not speak of McQueen’s direction. He has always been a powerhouse of a director, but here his mastery cannot be understated. Be it a long take of a car driving a handful of blocks or the repeated motif of the women being shown reflected in windows or mirrors (which I haven’t quite unpacked yet but I’m sure means something brilliant), McQueen knows how to build tension and character through his direction. While Widows isn’t a flashy movie, it’s an intricately made one, and McQueen should be dominating the Best Director conversation.
I mentioned in the headline that the film is feminist. I mean that not in a rah rah Spice Girls sense, but in a deep narrative sense. These women are not perfect angel role models: they get angry and say cruel things and commit a crime. But they are real characters with dreams that extend beyond the nearest man. They are flesh and blood, not tropes pasted together.
I feel as though I can’t quite recall when women, especially women of color, led such a gritty character piece in which they are the heroes. We are asked to extend the same sympathy and understanding to them as we do the millions of anti-heroic white guys who dominate the noir genre without McQueen or Flynn making a fuss about how important that is.
This film goes beyond a simple heist. This is a testament to women breaking ground in new genres, especially women of color. Go see this film as soon as you can, preferably with a large audience. Pay to see this film. Talk about it on social media. Widows should be the start of a bold new take on the crime genre and the anti-hero genre, and I already cannot wait to see it again.
(image: 20th Century Fox)
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