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A Heist, And A Whole Lot More, As Viola Davis Delivers In 'Widows'

Viola Davis stars as Veronica, a woman who loses her husband and gains a heist gang in <em>Widows</em>.
Merrick Morton
Twentieth Century Fox
Viola Davis stars as Veronica, a woman who loses her husband and gains a heist gang in Widows.

It is one of the oldest and most sexist tropes of all that husbands make messes and wives clean them up. Widows, directed by Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave) and co-written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), spins that idea in a new direction.

Veronica (Viola Davis) is living a high-class, meticulously art-directed Chicago life with her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) and her fluffy little dog. But Harry's gains are all ill-gotten, and when he pulls one big robbery too many and everything goes sideways, Veronica loses him in a massive van explosion that also takes the lives of the rest of his gang.

The problem? The gang still owes a debt to the man they robbed, and if there's a debt harder to get rid of than your student loans, it's the money you owe to an operator as merciless as Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Manning is himself a criminal, running for alderman against incumbent Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell). Politics, of course, takes money. So Jamal both wants and needs his $2 million back, and he expects Veronica — and the widows of the other three men who died in the robbery, if necessary — to make good.

So Veronica goes looking for them: Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), whose husband's gambling debts were out of control; Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), whose husband was controlling and abusive; and Amanda (Carrie Coon), who wants nothing to do with all this gangster business and won't talk to Veronica. So she makes do with the team she has, telling Linda and Alice that if they want to live, they only have one option: carry out the heist plans she found in Harry's notebook. Get that money, use it to pay off Jamal — whose brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) glowers where Jamal placidly threatens — and get free.

And so Widows is a heist movie. There are plans to make, there are escapes to engineer, there are unexpected challenges to confront. At the same time, Widows is a drama about Veronica — who turns out to have a long and painful history with grief — taking her fate into her own hands. It's a film doing two very different things, and it's very good at both.

Part of this success comes from the performance of Viola Davis, who settles into Veronica's crime-boss phase with ice-cold determination while carrying the character's deliciously stylish, almost over-the-top panache. She totes around a fluffy little dog that has a story reason to exist but also brings a glamorous aesthetic, together with Davis' gorgeous and elegant wardrobe, that gives the film a particular flair.

Davis gets strong support from the other women in the group, including Cynthia Erivo as a late addition to the heist team. Debicki, in particular, has a take on the traditional crime-film gorgeous blonde that delivers wit and vulnerability; she has the best chemistry with Davis of any of the widows. And Michelle Rodriguez, it's fair to remember, is a veteran of the hugely successful Fast and the Furious franchise. She knows her action sequences and her steely glares. Like Neeson, she works this beat regularly — but like him, she's doing something new within it.

Any crime film is nothing without a good villain. (Anyone who's seen Die Hard and known that Hans Gruber occasionally had a point knows it's true.) And Widows, while it most certainly is a story of good and bad guys, has put some thought into the bad guys, too. It's easy to note the immediacy of Jamal and Jatemme as the people who threaten Veronica; Henry and Kaluuya both know how to play heavies, even though they've both played some sweethearts, too. But in the wings is Farrell's Mulligan, playing out the Chicago-politics machinations of his dying father, played by Robert Duvall. And when Jamal confronts Mulligan about the fact that he doesn't really know the ward he represents, hasn't really done anything for it, and barely lives in it, it highlights the difference between immediate and overarching villainy. Who picks up the gun, and who created the situation the gun was picked up to solve? None of this absolves Jamal, but it adds dimensions to his behavior. Evil comes in many forms, and consequences, like everything else, are unequally distributed.

We could certainly end here with a discussion of the dismal representation numbers in Hollywood; how unconscionably rare it is to see strongly supported studio films that offer this kind of role for an actress of Davis' gender, age, race and shade. The same goes for major releases with a celebrated black director like McQueen, let alone one making a fabulous and fun genre film that doubles as a clever examination of what it means to be a wife and a widow. Seeing Davis, seven years after she played a maid in The Help, heading up a heist team — seeing her take charge of this group, seeing her face down her enemies in perfectly cut clothes and avenge those she loved — it's thrilling. This is all true.

But let us not lose sight of the fact that this movie is so much fun and so satisfying, so suspenseful and exciting, that all you may want to do at the end is exhale, let your body go limp, crunch your last kernel of popcorn, and buy a ticket to see it again.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.

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