Widows is a Taut Thriller with a Heart of Cold

Christopher Maher: The premise of Widows is delightfully simple. Harry Rawlings (Liam Neesom) and his gang are killed in a robbery gone wrong. The man they robbed, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) wants the money back, but it’s gone, burned to a crisp along with the robbers. So, he turns to the Harry’s widow, Veronica (Viola Davis) and demands the money from her. Without any clear allies she turns to the people just as much in the hole as she is, aka, the widows of Harry’s gang: Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki). Using Harry’s old notebook the gang must plan one final heist to return the debt and start a new life.

Typed out it actually sounds a little complicated, and in truth the movie itself is densely packed – not only a heist movie but also a quasi political thriller. Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) is running for local office against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), son of the incumbent alderman Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall). The film is frenetic, filled with flashbacks and quick choppy scenes. It is, in short, a pretty classic genre piece in terms of bare bones plot elevated by craftsmanship and an acute attention to character.

Samuel Russell: I like that you mentioned that it’s simple, before realizing that on paper it’s very complicated. I think that’s a really good indication of how goddamn well this movie executes every idea. The genre elements of the film are simple, where they typically aren’t. Heist movies and political thrillers are notoriously convoluted, because they are notoriously heavy on plot, thin on story. For example, what do you remember about Oceans 11? I remember that George Clooney robs 3 casinos simultaneously, in spectacular fashion. I don’t remember why. Widows is less concerned with plot, it’s all story. This is a heist movie where the audience learns very little about the heist until it’s happening. Instead it uses the best parts of the genre, but reallocated screentime from heist planning to characters who have suddenly lost all their power. Power that up until now they held tenuously, conditionally through the men in their lives. Widows is what happens when smart people make entertainment. It elevates the heist and political thriller genres without sacrificing what makes those genres so enjoyable.

CM: The thrill of this movie comes not (only) from the heist but, as you say, from story. This is primarily a story about four women (the three widows recruit Belle (Cynthia Erivo) as their driver) from wildly different backgrounds clawing their way to power, and to do that they need each other. Their lives are more brutal than the typical rat pack style heist gang, but the “gang as family” trope remains. If the heist is going to be successful they’ll need to work together, but they’re not a bunch of screwball egomaniacs with a slick set of skills – they’re a dysfunctional and complicated family that needs to learn to cooperate if they want to survive.

Which, again, cuts to what you were saying – we learn so little about the heist primarily because every planning scene is almost exclusively focused on emotional negotiations, not the technical ones. Moments that linger are Cynthia yelling at Alice for not knowing how to drive and then insisting they don’t have time for crying, when Linda demands to know if either of her co-conspirators has ever even visited a jail, when Cynthia comes to Alice’s apartment because she is afraid for her life and doesn’t know where else to go. Each scene is electric because the dynamic between these women is constantly shifting. Strains and understanding between the “family members” is what drives the drama, not the heist itself.

Because it is so character centered the film takes a deep dive into the forces – personal history, socioeconomic status, and race – that forge each character. It’s difficult to boil it down to any specific thing because the movie deals with all those factors with nuance, and, again, great craft. I was absolutely blown away by the continuous shot from outside Jack Mulligan’s car as he drives away from a rally in a disadvantaged neighborhood and arrives, a minute later, at the entrance to his mansion. That’s just… great storytelling. You don’t have to say a word to reveal everything about both that world and that specific character.

SR: I actually disagree with you about this using the “gang as family.” Trope. One of the most interesting choices Steve McQueen (director & co-writer) and Gillian Flynn (co-writer) make is how silo each is in their own world. It’s almost anthological. They are brought together by circumstance, for a finite amount of time, to accomplish a specific goal. The only hint at a relationship beyond what is necessary comes in the film’s final seconds, and when it happens it’s a little confounding.

Do you want to talk about the acting? I don’t think there was a single weak link. Daniel Kaluuya deserves awards. He plays pure evil as very casual, and it is haunting.

CM: You’re right that they all have their own lives, and that each is looked at in depth. Maybe it doesn’t quite come to “gang” as a family. Maybe it’s more gang as a community? I think the film does a nice job of letting their lives breath, while still allowing the various members to have multifaceted serious relationships with each other.

But you’re absolutely right that I want to talk about acting. The more I see Kaluuya, the more I feel he was robbed of an Oscar last year. He can play a protagonist in a horror movie, a robust side-character in a Marvel blockbuster, and a downright terrifying, but still complex, villain. For me the showstopper, however, was Elizabeth Debicki. Maybe it was because I didn’t know anything about her going in (I was already anticipating impressive performances from Davis, Rodriguez, and Kaluuya) but I found her scenes vulnerable, funny, and ferocious, often all at once. She and Davis, and their wonderfully complex, loving, antagonistic relationship, are the reason I would argue there are elements of “family” between the players, and why I didn’t find that ending at all confounding, but instead exactly what I was both hoping for and expected.

As always we talked about story and characters and not quite enough about the other elements. This is, embarrassingly, my first Flynn content in any form, but it absolutely affirms what I’ve heard about her – she is good at female led stories with twisty narratives. Is there anything in the editing/camera work that particularly stuck with you?

SR: Gang as community I think checks out. I think the important takeaway is that their womanhood is the commonality they share. The other facets of their identities keep them worlds apart. But no matter their race and class, all are under the thumb of men and desire to get out from under it. I think it’s important that the film doesn’t pretend these women would be family, or friends for that matter, because it’s brutally honest about both the ways these experiences intersect and diverge.

All of Widow’s formal elements are top tier. The camera in the opening car chase is committed to the robber’s point of view- fixed to the inside of the van looking out the rear double-doors, ever eroding with bullets. The film intercuts between the chase with scenes of these women with their criminal husbands at home. This sets up the relationships they have to their husbands with impressive economy- we’ll never see these husbands again, but we understand them completely. The whole film continues like this, dispersing information perfectly. It has the ticking pace of a thriller, while somehow still allowing time to linger in these lives. The political drama gets busy, but never feels unclear. It’s really impressive and I don’t really understand exactly how it was done, which is one of the many reasons I look forward to seeing it again. It’s a miracle of structure, and I think both Flynn and editor Joe Walker both deserve high praise. I recall both Flynn’s Gone Girl and Joe Walker’s Blade Runner 2049 as similarly well built.

CM: I give Widows 9 hidden vaults out of 10 pampered dogs.

SR: I give Widows 9 Super Bowl rings out of 10 pounds of 50 dollar bills.

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3 thoughts on “Widows is a Taut Thriller with a Heart of Cold

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