Widows is the best theatrical experience of the year
The best theatrical experience I’ve had all year is easily Widows. The crowd, myself included, was all in from moment one, and while I cannot promise you’ll share the theater with a group as enthusiastic as mine was, I can promise that Widows is a film designed to push your buttons in the best of ways. From moment one, Gillian Flynn’s lean, mean script keeps a pistol pressed against the our backs, pushing us past our comfort zone, while Steve McQueen’s masterful direction draws us into the darkness with open arms. The pace is lightning fast from the outset, and nary is a chance to breathe provided until the credits roll. Sure, a lot of what goes on is boilerplate heist movie pulp, but it’s boilerplate heist movie pulp put forth by two modern masters and brought to life by a dream team of performers. Everything about Widows works. There’s just no resisting it.
And really, why would you want to? Unless you’re a jerk or something. But you’re not a jerk. You’re awesome. I love you.
I’m not going to get into the complexities of the plot, which is surprisingly dense in both story and character. The details serve to motivate what is a pretty basic heist yarn, and that’s what makes it so fun. I can’t speak to the source material (yes, it is based on a miniseries from 1983 - which was sequelized in 1985 and remade again in 2002), but in keeping with Gillian Flynn’s style, Widows plays like a novel. The characterizations are realized through action, as is the exposition, oftentimes without showing any cards up front. Characters are introduced without apparent function, and it’s only as the story develops that we see just what purpose they serve. Cynthia Ervino’s Belle comes to mind, as does the adorable Welsh puppy that shares just about every scene with Viola Davis. At first, we wonder “why am I seeing this?” only to later find ourselves thinking “hoooooooly shit.” It’s masterful.
Anywho, the bare bones plot description is as follows: After a botched heist leaves an entire crew burned to a crisp along with their spoils, the surviving spouses, now tasked with paying back the destroyed cash, must mount a heist of their own. They work with scant resources and limited time, while the civic forces surrounding them complicate things, testing the tenuous bonds of their relationship.
Flynn uses the varied social standings of each of our leading ladies to explore notions of privilege and socio-economics, bravely integrating the forces of wealth and race in subversive ways that few movies (and certainly not box office-minded blockbusters) dare to go. This is bolstered by the direction of Steve McQueen who, while it may appear is hanging up his arthouse hat and putting on his action shorts, imbues the film with thematic density that is never lacking in style or narrative clarity. A simple sequence in which mayoral hopeful, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) is driven from a campaign event in the projects to his home on the other side of “the green line” showcases the filmmaker’s brilliance. No attention is called to the setting on the page, but McQueen’s camera, which is mounted on the hood of the car, facing the barely transparent windshield, shows us everything we need to know in one of the film’s many long takes. We can just make out Mulligan in the passenger seat, while the architecture of the poorer side of town passes by in the background. The shot shifts softly to the other side of the vehicle. Now it is the driver, likely from a poorer area, who is in frame as the buildings they pass grow larger, cleaner, and more likely to be surrounded by protective gates and long driveways. It’s rock and roll filmmaking at its most subtle — both stylish and thematically rich — and this description applies to just about every shot in the film.
Even with lofty thematic aims, make no mistake, this is a pulp tale through and through. Every minute sizzles, priming the viewer for an explosion (literal and figurative) that could come at any moment, and frequently does. The lives of the characters are heightened by the very nature of the film’s tone, but not to a ridiculous degree. Their lives are complicated, but never to the point where the film is weighed down — rather just enough that every action taken is properly and thoroughly motivated. Never does a moment arise when I felt the need to question anyone’s logic, even as bullets are flying and difficult decisions are being made.
There are twists and turns, but the story doesn’t hinge upon them. Like, at all. This isn’t a film where plot reveals are meant make the audience retroactively consider the whole film. Instead, these developments only matter in the context of the character experiencing them, with our reaction being based vicariously through theirs. It’s not about the shock value, but rather the precision of the plot machinations. A trick of all heist movies is to show us plans A and B, making us think that the protagonists have moved to plan C, only to find that they’ve been working a proto-plan A we’ve not been privy to the whole time (All 4 Ocean’s movies do this). This is NOT how Widows works. It lets us in on its secrets and betrayals in real time, making the scramble for our characters to succeed that much more urgent. This, I’m sure, adds to the rewatch value.
Also adding to the rewatch value is the wealth of varied, intense, supremely entertaining performances from a cast so good that it’s hard to believe it was ever assembled. How are we so lucky?!? Our lovely ladies of larceny include Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and my new favorite addition to any movie, Cynthia Erivo. All are women from different situations dealing with the same circumstances, and watching them interact is a superb joy of its own. Seeing them step out from under the shadows of their deceased husbands to embrace their own world-changing power is as fun to watch as it is to see those who underestimate them being thoroughly and violently proven wrong. The dialogue they share is the most delicious pulp too.
“We have a lot of work to do and crying isn’t on the list,” cautions de facto leader Veronica (Davis).
Rounding out the cast we have Carrie Coon, Jacki Weaver, Jon Bernthal, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Garret Dillahunt, and in one of the most terrifying performances of the year, Daniel Kaluuya as Jatemme, the gangland muscle who doesn’t take shit from anyone, least of all YOU.
Just playin’. He can’t see you.
Widows is what every ensemble thriller should aspire to be. Exciting, smart, fun — every moment doubling as a showcase for everyone involved, be it the writer, director, actors, or even the sound team (the gun blasts in this will pierce your heart). Don’t miss Widows. And if you go see it, let me know because I want to see it again while it’s still drawing crowds.
AND DON’T YOU DAREBE THAT PERSON WHO CLAIMS TO HAVE HAD IT ALL FIGURED OUT FROM THE BEGINNING. WE ALL DID. YOU’RE NOT SPECIAL. IT’S NOT THAT MOVIE.
Widows opens in Philly theaters today.