It’s very stereotypical for a writer to struggle to find motivation to do just that, write. So in an effort to force myself to write more regularly, I’ve decided to introduce the capsule review. These will be brief, quick-hit reviews of movies I’ve seen recently. It’s a simple concept, you don’t need any more explanation than that — let’s get to it.
Widows is an exceedingly rare gem. This kind of smart crime film has been squeezed out of theaters in recent years, and it’s even rarer to see an Oscar-decorated filmmaker step into this genre. With Widows, writer-director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) has fashioned a thrilling mainstream heist movie with plenty on its mind.
This is maybe the slowest, most contemplative heist film ever — and I mean that as a compliment. There are action movie thrills and twists, of course, but they are few and far between. Instead, McQueen lets his outstanding cast cook while he explores broad social themes. Widows impressively ponders Big Ideas like (deep breath) race, gender, religion, power, political corruption, gun ownership, police brutality, and more. For the most part, it avoids feeling bloated.
Widows marks a departure for McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn. McQueen’s first three films — Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave — form a sort of trilogy about suffering. In his latest, he’s depicting grief, a different kind of suffering, but Widows still moves at three times the speed of his previous work. It’s fascinating to watch him go from a prestige Best Picture winner to something this accessible.
Flynn usually writes novels and screenplays about broken and self-destructive women, like Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) in this year’s HBO miniseries Sharp Objects, or sociopathic villains, like Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne. Here the women of Widows (while criminals) are not wrestling against some inner darkness, but taking desperate action to survive after their brutal husbands left them holding the bag.
Those titular widows lead a ridiculously stacked cast. You may not be too familiar with Elizabeth Debicki or Cynthia Erivo, but they are giving us empathetic performances in limited screen time. You’re paying strict attention whenever they are present. Ditto for the men in supporting roles here. Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, and Robert Duvall are all significant talents that are handed smaller parts that are interesting nonetheless. However, the actor that steals the show is Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out). His cold-blooded mob enforcer is legitimately one of the most terrifying figures I’ve seen on screen in recent years.
Holding it all together is the great Viola Davis. To pull off a film with such a sprawling narrative and character count, you need someone with the gravitas to center it all. Davis has this in spades. She plays Veronica Rawlings, widow to Neeson’s renowned criminal, with a masterful mix of strength, vulnerability, and drive. On the surface, Veronica is severe and tough, but in other moments, Davis shows us the cracks as Veronica reckons with her husband’s actions. It’s a performance that only a handful of actresses are capable of.
Not quite everything works in this movie. There’s a couple scenes that strain the believability of such a gritty film, and the flashback police shooting near the end feels shoehorned in for modern-day relevance. Even if Widows bites off a little more than it can chew, I’d still take it over most crime movies this decade. McQueen and Co. are somehow able to provide heist movie adrenaline without sacrificing a compelling and thoughtful story.
See it if you like: Crime films that strive to transcend their genre. Widows contains some of the epic sweep of Heat with a dash of twisty plot thrown in.