"Widows" screening

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Movie review: Viola Davis steals the show in heist thriller 'Widows'

November 15, 2018 - 7:00 am
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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Three married women are forced into a life of disorganized crime to pay back the debts that their mob husbands "owed" when they were killed during a botched armed robbery.

That's the premise of "Widows," a dark, cynical thriller that interweaves a high-stakes heist with a sociopolitical drama set in contemporary Chicago.

It comes from director Steve McQueen, the Oscar-winning director of "12 Years a Slave," and stars Viola Davis, the Oscar-winning Best Supporting Actress for "Fences."  

Davis plays a teachers union executive married to Liam Neeson's character. What does he do for a living? Well, let's put it this way: He keeps a "crime journal," which turns out to be a major plot point.

Anyway, she's one of the three recently widowed wives whose lives are threatened when local thugs demand that they make good on money that their now-deceased crime-committing spouses made disappear — and it's in the millions.

Thus must these otherwise ordinary female citizens transform themselves into master thieves virtually overnight, which they do with suspicious ease — one of the problematic flaws in an otherwise impressive film with lots to recommend it.

The screenplay, co-written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn ("Gone Girl"), is based on a 1983 British TV miniseries by Lynda La Plante, and is as interested in its various themes — including sexism, racism, political corruption, urban conflict, the relationship between money and power, police brutality, female empowerment, and interracial interaction — as it is in the heist itself.

McQueen is obviously working on a large canvas — a bit too large, it turns out — in this amalgam of genre.

If that suggests that McQueen may have been overly ambitious in putting too much food for thought on his plate, well, that's not far from the truth. As is the reminder that this project was originally conceived as a multiple-episode series, with a lot more material than can be shoehorned into a stand-alone feature film.

But it's not easy to develop a rooting interest in, or an emotional connection to, characters in a movie this crowded and brisk, which explains the extensive use of backstory flashbacks that provide additional context but do not help us to engage with the characters.

Despite those flashbacks, and perhaps inevitably, several subplots get trotted out ever so briefly, only to be glossed over or abandoned as the narrative proceeds.

As for the gunplay violence and car-chase action — most of which is both appropriate and even necessary — it is well-crafted, energetic, and jolting, but perhaps a shade too frequently dwelled upon in a movie that is otherwise smart and thoughtful. There are even a couple gasp-inducing twists along the way.

Davis — first among equals in a gifted ensemble that also includes Michelle Rodriguez, Colin Farrell, Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Duvall, Jon Bernthal, and Carrie Coon — is more than up to the task as she juggles loving, grieving, training, leading, fighting, stealing, longing, and struggling to survive as if there's nothing to it.

So we'll pilfer 2 ½ stars out of 4 for "Widows," in which Davis is, not for the first time, better than the vehicle she's driving.