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TIFF Review: "Widows"

by Chris Feil

If you thought that Steve McQueen’s Widows would be less of a body blow as his other films simply because the genius director is dipping into the mainstream, guess again. A quaint notion that is thankfully not the case - McQueen hasn't softened a bit, and thank goodness.

Watching the film is like laying on a bed of nails, danger at every turn as you dodge its narrative and formative land mines. McQueen’s previous films such as 12 Years a Slave and Shame depicted viscerally physical experiences, making for intense films that can be felt as deeply in the body as well as the soul. Though Widows is less concerned on physical tolls taken on its characters than those efforts, that doesn’t mean you don’t still feel Widows down to your bones.

McQueen opens the film with alternating intimate passion and intimate violence, introducing us to a heist gone fatally wrong and the women who love the men that went down in flames. Viola Davis is at the forefront as Veronica, a Chicago education official whose husband Harry (played by the ghost of Liam Neeson) kept his dirty dealings a secret. That foiled deal makes a local district candidate, Brian Tyree Henry’s Jamal Manning, come calling Veronica to settle Harry’s $2M debt. To help pull off the impossible, and with the help of Harry’s remaining notebook of plans, Veronica enlists her fellow widows of the spree gone wrong, including Michelle Rodriguez’s Linda and Elizabeth Debicki’s Alice.

Widows takes its seemingly straightforward crime narrative and weaves in character details and sociopolitical context to reflect a world where the personal and the political are inextricable, where institutional corruption and old boy loyalties create impossible consequences for the innocent average citizen. McQueen and Gillian Flynn’s screenplay sometimes allows murkiness over definitiveness for the sake of effectively showing a world where reliable alliance is impossible. Manning’s political intentions appear just and honorable, undercut by his menace and willingness to enact the violence of his brother Jatemme, played with Chigurhian brilliance by Daniel Kaluuya. His rival, Colin Farrell’s Jack Mulligan, represents the status quo politicking that does nothing for the people, and has his own degrees of alternating virtue and nefariousness.

While this rich contextual fabric lends the film an immediacy, its McQueen’s take-no-prisoners approach to building tension that makes the film as invigorating and stressfully evocative as it is. Seldom does a scene occur that some small detail or character beat doesn’t intensify the moment, like the omnipresence of Veronica’s dog and the less than friendly atmosphere shared between the new partners in crime. It’s a constant stream of microtensions that turn Widows into a macro powder keg, leaving our nerves in a frayed tangle. Nailbiters beware.

Its massive cast (no seriously, even the bit players are recognizable faces) is all given opportunities to shine and given the space to complicate the texture of the film - though Jackie Weaver and Robert DuVall are perhaps given too much space. Along with Kaluuya’s terrifying villain, Debicki is the standout, even if her larger screentime provides repetitive beats that stick out against the film’s steady ability to surprise us with new ideas. Cynthia Erivo stealthily sneaks late into the film, ready to steal the multiplex as swiftly as she took the Broadway stage - her coarse interplay with Davis makes for one perfect wordless scene late in the film.

But Viola Davis’s achievement should not be taken for granted. Given the kind of thriller-headlining some of her most ardent fans have longed for, the actress delivers complex and uncompromising pathos as Veronica scarcely behaves as leading women are expected to, particularly in typically male genres. Davis is all pain and rage, moving with decisiveness to prevent the storm inside her from taking over. She’s impenetrable but barely hanging on - a duality that Davis turns into one of her greatest tour de forces.

Captured with cruel beauty by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, Widows is another psychologically immersive and exhaustive piece from McQueen. The film is something comfortable at the multiplex that also doesn’t sacrifice his aesthetic rigor or unique perspective on the human ability to endure past breaking points. It takes us with its widows through back-breaking pain, and comes out the other side with McQueen’s signature faint glimmer of undiminishable hope for the human spirit. Bring a neck brace.

Grade: A-

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Reader Comments (34)

Kaluuya has been singled out in every review i've read could he be about to get another nomination,I still don't feel this is an Oscar film.

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Do you think Debicki stands a shot at a nomination?

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSharon

I could see Viola getting nominated if the Academy wanted to go with a diversity pick, plus maybe they want to adopt her as a perennially nominated performer like Meryl or Denzel (not a bad thing).

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBlue

Yes, because Viola could only get a nomination as a "diversity pick" and not because of her immense and meticulous talents.

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbeyaccount

I understand what @Blue wants to say: thanks to the internet AMPAS must be more conscious about who they nominate. Of course Davis is one of the most talented actresses working these days, but it happens she's black and she's playing female-empowered character in "WIDOWS". After a #OscarSoWhite and Time's Up, not only she can kick-ass in acting, but an Oscar nom for this performance would add some meaning to Best Actress nominees shortlist

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEd

Critical acclaim should be the only criteria for whether a movie is Oscar worthy.

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Omg this makes me want to watch the movie so bad
And carrie coon is here too?! Damn

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSTFU

Like Sandra Bullock in “The Blind Side”? LOL

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJAL

/3rtful: I see what you mean, but I'm not sure critics are always the best judges of movies! A film could get weak reviews but be a really good film that has somehow been misunderstood, and the Academy could notice and nominate it. Remember, critical acclaim is usually based on one viewing on initial release. Some raved-about movies can fade, and some excellent movies need more time to reveal their qualities and are only appreciated later.

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

Lynda LaPlante's book (which she wrote as an adaptation of her own mini-series) is enormously entertaining and it's so easy to see Viola Davis as Dolly.

The reviews have been strong so far and I can't wait to see this. I hope it's a box-office hit; any awards attention can then be icing on the cake.

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

I guess that means that Meryl, who won NYFCC for The Iron Lady, deserved her 2011 Best Actress Oscar.

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

I love Davis, but I wish she would play a lighter character for a change of pace.

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

I loved this movie, too, but I think Viola might have trouble getting nominated for it in such a jampacked best actress year. She's great in it but it's not a character study at all really and the other contenders will (presumably) have lots more screen time devoted to the intricacies of their characterizations.

I do think that if the movie is a huge hit that Debicki could get some heat though because it's a showy standout in a (probably) popular movie.

September 9, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

rdf Agreed she's stuck in this type and can't seem to break free,I want Viola to get a comedy or a great romantic role.

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Davis carries the weight of her life on her shoulders. She's not a light touch performer.

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Glad for McQueen and the cast. But I really think that Viola, Daniel and Elizabeth will be the only nominated people of the movie throughout the season. And only Daniel will be remembered by AMPAS.

Other news: The Wife made U$ 2 million on box office in 153 cinemas. GO GLENN, GOOOOO!!!

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJon

Jon --i think it'd be an uphill climb for Kaluuya. It's a small role. He's terrifying and memorable but only gets dialogue in a few key scenes. All the men are good (well maybe Duvall is overdoing it) but it's Viola and Debicki and Rodriguez get a lot more screentime than anyone else.

September 9, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

@/3rtful So you know her????!!!!

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

@Nathaniel R

Thanks. Now everything become clear: Viola will be the one who COULD e nominated.

But, I think, the case here is the movie been a box office hit more than an awards hit.

Will be nice to have the two, but I think that a smash hit for a female leading ensemble will means more to the director and crew.

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJon

@rdf: I’m not gonna say she isn’t capable of light comedy — *Meryl voice* Someone give her a rom-com! — but you don’t *have* to know Davis personally to hear her give several accounts of her struggles as a dark-skinned black woman who had rocks thrown at her as a child just walking home (miles, no less) from a school she went to for better opportunities. And that’s just the stuff she tells US. Who knows what else she’s endured considering the era in which she grew up? That stuff stays with you for life. You can see it in her bow-legged gait. You can see it in those beautiful but haunted eyes. You can even hear it in her Oscar and Emmy speeches, among others.

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEli

Ok. Then what you are saying is that she is probably a limited actress.

I do not think that is true
They say comedians usually have had hard lives and yet they choose to
Make people laugh. There are plenty examples of this.
Just saying!!!

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRdf

When you’re as in demand as Viola you take the meaty dramatic material you salivated over since you were a struggling actor unsure that you’ll find success, let alone superstardom and veneration the level of which guarantees a minimum two competitive Oscar wins in your lifetime.

Also at worst she will be like a Jane Fonda in comedies, a great fit for her role, but letting the costars be zanier/ “light touch” performers.

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRaison

Wow really interesting article, may later be able to share other helpful information are more interesting. Thank you!

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterhappy wheels

You “guys” are Oscar fanatics. Whatever happened with movies for fun and enjoyment???

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRdf

I... didn't love this one. The story feels incredibly crammed (which, given that it's based on a miniseries, makes sense) and I kind of felt that Steve McQueen's hand is too heavy for what the film ultimately ends up being, so the heist doesn't feel as exciting as it should. The cast was pretty terrific (Daniel Kaluuya is a standout, of course, and Elizabeth Debicki is the best of the women), but I couldn't fully connect with this one. I also saw it at an 8:30 am P&I screening, so I may have to give it another go, but I can't really sing its praises.

September 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

@rdf - To be clear, I don’t disagree with you. After all, my first statement was give her a rom-com. It was moreso a way of saying I understand why /3rtful doesn’t think of her of as a light-touch actress. Her one role in a comedy (United States of Tara) was even a solemn (though empowered) character. There’s a cloud of intensity that isn’t necessarily the same as those of comedians you reference or someone like Oprah (who’s had one hell of a life herself). However, she can certainly turn it off. Me, personally? I want Viola in all the movies, all the time. And anyone who doubts her comedic chops hasn’t seen her Cecil B. DeMille intro to Meryl.

September 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEli

Ok. I see. I was really reacting to /3rtful always trolling or being didactic.

September 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRdf

Yes, Meryl deserved the 2011 Oscar.

September 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDg

Some actresses are just terrific in a certain genre...we can't expect every actress to be versatile in drama, comedy, musical. thriller, etc, it's not realistic.

September 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJans

Ye Gods, we can add Kiki Layne to the Actress contenders based on early reviews. We have Close, Gaga, Mulligan, Collette, Davis, McCarthy, Theron, with Ronan still to come. Also Knightley perhaps... I know I am forgetting some major names. Of Course! The ladies from The Favourite.

September 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

I liked this didn’t quite love it. Viola and Debecki were both great,but my standout was Kaluuya if he only had a couple of more scenes....

September 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterNikki

Also, Julia Roberts for Ben is Back.

September 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

If Roma is really a Best Picture player, it's going to need an acting nod, and most people think Yalitza Aparicio is its best chance.

September 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Hey ... I saw the movie yesterday and I've found it to be inconsistent and with too many sub-plots packed in tight little scenes with comical results ( Weaver's scene persuading her daughter to become an escort is an example).
Characters are not given the chance to develop (except for Kuluuya who is a standout with few lines). The political plot is not connected properly with the major plot lines (plus, are we sure that all the colin farrell's scene are essential to the drama and the political subtext of the story?)
It's been a major disappointment overall.

November 21, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMarco

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