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Toronto Review: ‘Widows’ (★★★½)

Steve McQueen’s twisty thriller finds room for a heist, family drama, racial politics and violence, and gender issues all led by a powerhouse performance from Viola Davis

Widows doesn’t waste any time setting itself up. In a virtuoso opening sequence, a heist gone wrong led by Harry (Liam Neeson) with his cohorts Florek (Jon Bernthal) and Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), is intercut with scenes with each of their wives or girlfriends; Harry in bed with Veronica (Viola Davis), Florek in a post-abuse breakfast conversation with Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Carlos fighting with Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), who owns a dress store. They meet an explosive and untimely end in a ball of flames as the Chicago police department lays into them with a hail of bullets.

It doesn’t take long for Henry’s debtors to come knocking and knocking they do in the form of Jamal, a local boss and candidate for his ward played by Brian Tyree Henry. Bursting into Veronica’s apartment, he scares and imbues every moment with terror as he details that she needs to come up with $2 million dollars in one month’s time, all the while threatening her little Westy Olivia (a scene stealer, this one) as an intimidation tool. Meanwhile, Jamal’s sidekick Jatemme (played with terrifying brilliance by Daniel Kaluuya) beats, shoots and slashes one of the outliers to Harry’s clan one by one. 

Political intrigue and deep-rooted nepotism come in the form of Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall as Jack and Tom Mulligan, a powerful family dynasty with deep roots in some of Chicago’s shadiest deals. Farrell is good here, trying to bring the dinosaur ways of doing dirty business into the 21st century. Duvall less so, spouting and sputtering epithets and art commentary in a surprisingly unconvincing fashion for an Oscar-winning veteran.  

When Veronica’s driver Bash (the always reliable Garrett Dillahunt) gives her something promised by Harry if he were to die, it opens the door to get out from under Jamal’s threat. It’s a key to a deposit box which holds Harry’s notebook. The notebook that not only details every single element of every heist he pulled off (names, dates, everything) but also the plan for the next one. This becomes the key for Veronica to organize the widows to pull a plan so crazy it just might work, if you will. 

Debicki’s Alice gets the most to do after Davis (who utterly dominates this film, in the best and Viola Davis-y way) and I hope this is her big breakthrough. The giraffe-like Debicki exudes strength and vulnerability in equal degrees. Abused by her ex and by her garish mother (played by Jacki Weaver channeling Sally Struthers it seems), she finds the shades from McQueen and Gillian Flynn’s adaptation of the 1983 miniseries from Lynda La Plante that allow to Alice to be fully fleshed, especially when trying to finagle information from a building financier (played by Lucas Haas). Rodriguez’s Linda is given a bit less but has the confidence in the heist to keep everyone else moving forward. A great addition comes in the form of Cynthia Erivo, a hairdresser who babysits for Linda. She’s a muscle-bound athlete who could put Tom Cruise’s film running to shame. She’s excellent here in her film debut.

Carrie Coon has a small part of a widow that doesn’t take part in Veronica’s plan (there’s good reason for that) and a thread of Veronica and Harry’s son’s death weaves its way through the film until we see how he died, which a bit too neatly ties itself to current national issues on race relations.  

For all of its drama and action, Widows isn’t without its moments of humor and levity. Alice, arriving at a late night meet up after a date in a gold, skintight minidress, elicits the comment from Linda “What is she wearing, a condom?” A scene with Davis in a steam room looking for privacy with the girls hits just the right beat.    

Twists and turns abound, and you might see them coming far ahead of their reveal, keep the story and action buoyant.

Backed by a pulsating score from Hans Zimmer and razor-sharp editing from Joe Walker (who’s cut all of McQueen’s films), the moment to moment urgency is palpable. Sean Bobbit’s nimble and sometimes ingenious cinematography (including one brilliant scene in a car that will have audiences talking about why it was shot that way) makes every moment count. Widows succeeds as a message movie inside a pulpy piece of pop entertainment and is all the better for it. 

About Erik Anderson

Erik thanks his mother for his love of all things Oscar, having watched the Academy Awards together since he was in the single digits; making lists, rankings and predictions throughout the show. This led him down the path to obsessing about awards. Much later, he found himself at GoldDerby, led by Tom O’Neill and then migrated over to Oscarwatch (now AwardsDaily), headed up by Sasha Stone before breaking off to create AwardsWatch. He is a member of the International Cinephile Society, GALECA (The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics), the International Press Academy and is the founder/owner of AwardsWatch.

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