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'Widows' delivers emotional thriller with star-studded, diverse cast

“Widows” is a moody film concerned with character, politics, race, religion and gender. Oh and there’s a heist — a fairly big one. Academy Award winning director Steve McQueen (“Hunger,” “Shame,” “12 Years A Slave”) creates an air of mayhem, grief and anguish. Even among such heavy themes, McQueen delivers a fantastic film both within and outside the heist genre. 

McQueen wrote the film alongside novelist Gillian Flynn, who wrote “Gone Girl.” Together they interweave several plot lines and characters into a kaleidoscopic narrative inside the city of Chicago. 

The film opens with Veronica (Viola Davis) and her criminal mastermind husband Harry (Liam Neeson) lying in bed. Clearly in love, they kiss and gaze into one another’s eyes. The film cuts back and forth between them and later that day when Harry and his gang rob their rivals. The job goes horribly wrong, leaving Veronica and the other wives as the titular widows. McQueen’s deftness as a director shines as he shows Veronica and Harry living a life of luxury, tranquility and love, while displaying the cost of such a lifestyle. 

Harry leaves Veronica with an impending $2 million debt to the menacing duo of Jatemme  (Daniel Kaluuya) Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who is a crime boss running for alderman in his gerrymandered Chicago ward. Both actors are excellent and terrifying in vastly different roles. Henry channels a melancholic pain and overbearing menace, toggling between them seemingly between frames. Kaluuya’s eyes alone haunt the film as he robs, kills and steals or orders others to do so. Together they threaten and intimidate Veronica, forcing her into criminal enterprise. 

Luckily, Veronica finds Harry’s old notebook, detailing a plan for a $5 million robbery. She sets out to assemble her team of widows, paired with an incentive — $3 million split evenly. Veronica finds Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez). Each woman comes with their own reason for grief beyond just their husband’s death, creating characters with more depth. In Veronica they find a way out of their troubling circumstances and someone who understands them, even though both are skeptical of the plan. 

Together they set out on their robbery, adding Belle (Cynthia Erivo) to their crew. For a brief few moments, McQueen allows the film to become engulfed in the heist. The women scope locations, search for blueprints and shoot target practice. Beyond the suffering on these widows’ faces, an uncertain future looms.

The heist takes place against the backdrop of the alderman election. It is a face-off between Jamal and the white legacy candidate Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), whose father (Robert Duvall) held the seat for decades, essentially as a crime boss. Jamal needs Veronica to pay the debt so he can defeat Mulligan and become the first black alderman of his hometown ward. McQueen’s choice to look at the effects of the heist from several angles serves the film well, giving it depth and character. 

A lot can be said of McQueen’s spectacular direction. His past films each focus on the idea of suffering and pain, including how that affects not just one person but the community around them. He is able to incorporate that focus into this high-stakes scenario. His framing, blocking and staging of several scenes in this film show a master at work. 

For all of McQueen’s vision, this is an acting-driven movie. Davis carries the film wearing each emotion on her face. Her bereavement carries and commands attention throughout and her interactions with the other women prove mighty. Debicki charms throughout and delivers empathy with a glare. Each actor has their moment including a mesmerizing Duvall and delicious Farrell. 

“Widows” is a crowded movie. Just by looking at the poster, with each actor squished against the next, you’d surmise that. There are plotlines and threads galore, some are resolved others are left hanging. Even so, each moment is necessary to display the consequences of crime and the many lives a city touches. McQueen paired with a perfect cast presents a chaotic, slow-burn thriller that emotes and breathes life into a genre.

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