LFF 2018 Widows Review
Widows (2018) Film Review from the 62nd Annual London Film Festival, a movie directed by Steve McQueen, starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizbaeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson and John Bernthal.
Steve McQueen’s latest film pales in comparison to his previous works. Nonetheless, it still provides a satisfying blend of action heist thrills and crime drama entertainment. Up until Widows (2018), the film-maker’s choices have been bold to say the least. The rightful Best Picture-winner 12 Years a Slave (2013) is a nightmarish and realistic depiction of slavery. Shame (2011) is the gut wrenching tale of a sex-addict’s self-destructive behavior. Hunger (2008) is the equally striking dramatization of a hunger strike. His first three features are all challenging and deeply emotional to the point of being uncomfortable, even unwatchable. The story of the quartet of widows-turned-criminals definitely ventures into more familiar, forgettable territory.
Viola Davis is in the role of a strong-willed, focused leader of a group of widowed mothers. The remaining members of the team are played by Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo. They find themselves in a dire financial situation following their husbands’ deaths after inheriting their debts. Soon their lives are threatened by a powerful crime boss. The women then join forces and prepare to carry out a robbery, the profits of which can save them. The film also features strong work from Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya in supporting roles.
Widows is a case of a film-maker’s formidable talents being focused on a script, which doesn’t allow him to hit as hard as we all know he can. Then again, it all depends on why you are going to see Widows in the first place. Do you want to be on the edge of your seat as the clock is ticking and gunshots are fired? Or do you want something deeper, like an investigation of the difficult lifestyles in a crime-infested community? This film tries to go for both but the two don’t really work together. The politics and the blockbuster elements end up diminishing the impact of the drama. That ultimately turns Widows into just another competently made heist thriller that doesn’t really stand out.
Daniel Kaluuya Shines
First of all, Daniel Kaluuya is awesome as the enforcer of a powerful crime boss. The intensity of his portrayal drew the loudest gasps from the audience at the film’s showing at the London Film Festival. He gets three stunning scenes, in particular, in which he goes all out on his unsuspecting victims. Ironically, they are the film’s best scenes and yet, they do not involve any of the four main heroines. Take that as you will. Leaving behind Black Panther’s colorful robes, loud chanting and bad CGI-rhinos proves to be extremely worthwhile for Kaluuya.
The role of his villain here lets him do what he does best. He delivers a subdued, low-key but straight up frightening performance that erupts with silent energy. His cold, calm expression is a terrifying mask, a cover for his next strike. Every time Kaluuya is on the screen, you keep asking yourself: When is he going to inflict another stab wound? And when the axe drops it does so in quite a style. Additionally, McQueen’s signature unbroken shots really work their magic, allowing the great young actor’s work to shine.
A Stellar Cast
As expected, Viola Davis convincingly steps into the shoes of Veronica, who is quite the character. She is the mastermind of a robbery. Deep down, she is a heartbroken victim of more than one terrible tragedy. In the eyes of others, she is also a person, who dares to fight back against the corrupt community that brought her so much pain. For Davis, joining these three personalities into one fully fleshed character turns out to be a piece of cake.
The other members of the team – the fierce Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), the innocent Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and the hardcore Belle (Cynthia Erivo) share a similarly structured backstory. Unfortunately, they are not as carefully explored but all three actresses make up for it in charisma. Rooting for them is easy, especially when their backs get pressed against the wall. Brian Tyree Henry does a great job as the intimidating crime boss. Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall are also an entertaining pair-up as a father and son – members of a powerful family.
Widows’ Breathtaking Action
In Widows, we get to see something very exciting – action scenes crafted by a director, who is best known for his exceptional ability to create highly affecting drama. Through simple shots with impactful framing and minimal but effective editing, McQueen lets the audience see it all, stay with it for long and let every detail sink in. That is pretty much how and why his action sequences work. They have the technical efficiency of big budget blockbusters. Practical effects and deafening, heart-stopping sound design definitely pay off. What really does the trick are McQueen’s wide shots and his refusal to cut away. He shows us car crashes, metal doors ripping off and windows being shot off through static shots. And since it is all happening quite close to the actors, one way or another, you will be impressed by it (the opening sequence in particular).
The Emotional Core: Reluctant Heroes
Essentially, this is a story about the way loss can create fighters. The main characters are the ex-romantic partners of criminals and even though they are new to “the life”, all 4 members of the team are battle-tested. Perhaps it is the tough life in the neighborhood that transformed them or perhaps they have turned into the people they married. The reason why they are as tough as nails is not immediately obvious but the point is, you buy it and feel it. This believable, modest form of heroism is shown in details particularly with Davis’ Veronica. The film’s most humane moments include the Oscar-winning actress and Liam Neeson, who does a very impressive job as her husband.
Life hits very hard in Widows – death, betrayal and murder are constantly on the screen. At the same time, however, there are many entertaining scenes, filled with sharp dialogue, which will evoke many well-deserved laughs. These two script elements contradict each other tonally speaking. In all likelihood, being married to a criminal means that tragedy is most certainly lurking behind the corner. That is why the presence of witty banter, which would fit well in your average blockbuster film, feels out-of-place here.
There is a moment in the film when the team of four are having a go at each other and it’s all fun. The next scene, however, is a flashback, revealing a terrifying moment from a main character’s past life. Such sudden tonal shifts can definitely be felt over the course of the film. In those moments, it is kind of obvious that the storytellers are struggling with mixing heavy crime drama and popcorn entertainment.
Some other script issues, which slightly smother the emotional impact of the film are certain aspects of the third act. Some of the obstacles, which the widows face are overcome in rather unbelievable ways. You might think twice about whether or not what just happened on-screen would work in real life. And realism is a vital ingredient for a story like this. The fact that four single mothers are taking on a dangerous task, involving gunfire, police sirens and car chases already requires at least some suspension of disbelief.
Over-reliance on Political Commentary Stains the Ride
Lastly, the story involves a politically themed, crime-filled subplot (obviously excluding the welcome presence of Kahuuya’s character) that sort of sticks out like a sore thumb. Robert Duvall plays a racist, bigoted power broker and the father of Collin Farrel’s more reasonable character. Duvall’s role clearly represents a straightforward critique aimed at the Trump administration. He actually has a couple of lines, in which he openly expresses his racist views and his hate for the immigrants, who cross the borders illegally. At that point a number of audience members actually laughed out loud at the obviousness of that reference.
Additionally, there are several scenes, in which the story comes to an absolute halt. They only serve to express the writers’ views of the corrupt society. These scenes, involving Duvall and Farrell come out of nowhere. They provide no dramatic pay off and are ultimately only coincidentally related to the main characters. They don’t serve any purpose other than to make some sort of vague political analysis. Supposedly, depending on how familiar audience members are with the real-life situation, he or she will find those scenes interesting or not. Regardless of filmgoers’ political views, the story would’ve been more focused if those scenes were cut off. Including more screen time with Veronica’s three accomplices, for example, would’ve certainly been a better choice.
A Good Film is Not Good Enough for McQueen
Widows entertains, thrills and impresses on a technical and artistic level. It looks and sounds great and all the performances work. The film definitely fails to reach the emotional heights of McQueen’s previous efforts, especially his last one. Political commentary, blockbuster entertainment and harrowing tragedy-soaked drama fill the 2 hour and 10-minute runtime. Unfortunately, all these elements end up working against each other, more or less. That being said, this is, for the most part, solid entertainment. Keep your expectations at bay, preferably forget its Steve McQueen and you will not be disappointed.
McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave reduced the audience at the 2013 London Film Festival to sobs and tears. Five years later, at the same event, when Widows ended and the lights went up, viewers walking out of the theater were discussing how cute and cuddly the white dog of the Veronica character was. They obviously had fun but McQueen can do so much better. His films were special because they aimed for the unfamiliar and the bold and went to places that others didn’t even want to approach. Too much of Widows is familiar and convenient.
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