Middleburg Film Festival '18: "Widows" Review

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In lesser hands Widows would be a run of the mill heist film. Give this script to any other director and you may not be challenged to keep up visually in the way Steve McQueen intelligently crafts this film. Give this script to any other cast and the words wouldn’t be elevated from the page to create characters that we see transform throughout the course of the film. Grab your popcorn folks; this is why we go to the movies!

Set in Chicago, Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Amanda (Carrie Coon) are found grieving the loss of their criminal husbands. After the hubbies perish in their latest heist attempt, their death means nothing to the people they owed. Local crime boss turning politician, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), seeks the money that Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew stole from him on principle, but also because he’s running against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the man whose family has been alderman of their district for two generations prior. Manning’s motive for getting the two million dollars is solid and with his cold-blooded gangsta brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), eager to help his brother win the elected spot, Veronica has no choice but to get to work. Equipped with a notebook her husband Harry left, Veronica decides that she can get out of debt and start a new life if she and her fellow widows can pull off the big caper Harry plotted out.

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McQueen’s work has always been raw, dark, and visually biting. He’s able to use those elements, set against the climate of current day Chicago, to give us a memorable, blockbuster heist film. The opening itself is a Soviet Montage of sorts that doesn’t lovingly bring you into the story but crashes together in a rhythmically edited mashup that quickly brings the audience up to speed. McQueen leads the story with his camera, laying the ground work for his actors to step in and knock the ball out of the park, and they come through.

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This review would be too long if each cast member got their time to shine here, but know that they do. Of note, Davis delivers a stellar performance as per usual by giving Veronica an internal conflict that is exhibited in a way that only Mrs. Davis can do over the course of the film! Elizabeth Debicki may certainly have the best character development throughout the film as you literally watch a shutdown and abused widow become a leader and empowered woman. All of the lead and supporting cast give us well rounded characters to watch on screen.

McQueen and co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn never telegraph an overt message in dialogue, but rather McQueen uses visuals to explain the issues in Chicago. The political race between Mulligan and Manning is a plot point, but there is a larger conversation to be had in our minds as audience members about the violence in the streets of the Chi. There’s a beautiful single take shot that shows the economic disparity that pushes the story forward while making you think afterwards. 

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The only small issue with the film may be in the eagerness to gain their dignity and respect, there is an ever pervasive message of the widows trying to prove themselves in their words. Their actions already show that they’re more than capable so we don’t need on the nose lines like “no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off!” While well delivered from Davis, it would be nice to be shown more than told. This in no way takes you out of the film or detracts from the empowerment that it delivers.

Widows proves that heist films can have layered meaning and story to them. It’s a good night out for the ladies, date night, and even time for the fellas! However you see it, make sure it’s in a theater. It will be well worth the money spent!

Rating: A

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Kevin Sampson

The fact that Kevin Sampson is not just a film critic, but a writer, producer, and director as well makes his understanding of cinema even better. Coming from a theoretical and hands on approach, he understands both sides of the struggle of viewing and creating great works. After receiving an MFA in Film & Electronic Media from American University in Washington, D.C in 2011, Kevin took his love for film to the next level by creating and producing Picture Lock, an entertainment website, podcast, and hour long film review TV show that runs on Arlington Independent Media’s public access station in Arlington, VA. The show covers new releases, classic films, and interviews with local filmmakers in the DMV area. He is also a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and African American Film Critics Association. He is currently looking forward to filming his first feature film in the near future. He believes that film is one of the most powerful art forms in the world, and he hopes that he can use the craft to inspire others and make a difference in it.