Playboy reviews Viola Davis' Widows

Viola Davis Steals the Show in Brutal Heist Movie 'Widows'

Playboy critic Stephen Rebello reviews the high-minded barn burner from Steve McQueen

Stripped down to bare essentials, Widows is an action movie in which three women, whose husbands died at the hands of police during a botched robbery, join forces to avenge themselves by stealing $5 million. The women have no zero experience, but each has a compelling motivation: survival. Says its leading character, played to the hilt by Viola Davis, “Our lives are in danger. Our husbands aren’t coming back. We’re on our own.”

Widows is just that matter-of-fact and brutal. Obviously, the bones of the movie—based on Lynda La Plante’s influential British crime series from the 1980s—could be the standard stuff of a heist thriller. The shrewdest widow, who aims to hold onto her sleek Chicago penthouse, hatches a plan. She pulls together a reluctant team. Chases, twists and turns, explosions, betrayals—the whole vengeance-thriller arsenal, in fact—come thick and fast. 
What most elevates and complicates Widows is the participation of director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame), his co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and the stellar cast headed by Davis. The Oscar winner, probably due for at least a nomination for Widows, plays Veronica Rawlings, a Chicago teachers’ union rep married to a big-time criminal, Harry (Liam Neeson), whose heist leads to his van of fellow thieves—and stolen $2 million—getting blown to smithereens.

Soon, Veronica and her scared little fluff-ball dog get menacing, unnerving visits and ultimatums from the crime kingpin Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Veronica’s got exactly one month to pay him back. Or else, face the wrath of Jamal’s brother, the unhinged traveling executioner Jatemme Manning (Daniel Kaluuya, diabolically scary). So far, so routine, right? Then, Veronica conveniently finds among Harry’s belongings not only nasty, compromising photos of a local political bigwig but also a “how-to” notebook for staging a big robbery. Sheer nonsense, those plot contrivances, but then Widows is full of silly, lazy stuff, including a meant-to-be-shocking plot reveal so blatantly obvious that any thriller fan should be able to spot it way less than 10 minutes into the action. 
Things pep up once Veronica enlists the help of fellow widows Linda (Michelle Rodriguez as a struggling dress shop owner), young mother Amanda (Carrie Coon) and an abused wife Alice (a witty, stylish, standout performance by Elizabeth Debicki). Alice’s mother, played by the one-note Jacki Weaver, suggests that she use that spectacular face and body to become an escort. Then there's Belle, a babysitter, hairdresser and single mom, who joins the crew late in the game. Singer Cynthia Erivo plays Belle as a formidable presence, and her toe-to-toe matches with Davis crackle.

McQueen and Co. have bigger ideas in mind than just a straight-up thriller, of course. Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell, playing a powerful politician father and alderman son, respectively, are very good in their subplot involving crooked, racist, opportunistic Chicago public policy, and the movie has much to say about the grim, widening imbalances between the haves and have-nots in contemporary America. And, as for sexism, watch for the scenes with Lukas Haas as a deep-pocketed admirer of Debicki’s charms, providing moments that vibrate with tension and inequality.
Viola Davis, in full-on powerhouse mode, plows right through the movie's absurdities and rough patches.
It's to McQueen and Flynn's credit that the supremely confident, sprawling, operatic, even Scorsese-like movie treats with dignity real-world challenges including crushing debt, childcare and the workplace. But ambitious, brash and entertaining as it may be, Widows falls short of classic stuff.

Yet Davis, in full-on powerhouse mode, plows right through the movie's absurdities and rough patches—rank amateurs pulling off a multimillion heist, seriously?—treating the whole affair with unsentimental sadness and toughness. Even the way she holds her little dog, a kind of substitute for her dead son as she lives in flashbacks with the lost Neeson, is an acting lesson in itself. With Widows, the little things make the biggest impact. 


Viola Davis thrills in this taut ride that doesn't stick to genre convention
Try not to focus too much on the logic leaps
Rating: 3.5 out of 4 bunnies

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