Widows easily has the best opening sequence of the year. It introduces the next two hours with precise character introductions and jarring cuts. The new movie from masterpiece director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame) returns (without Michael Fassbender for the first time) in an action movie with aching grief and twisting plot. Co-written with Gone Girl and Sharp Objects author Gillian Flynn, Widows is the story of Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) who collects fellow widows Alice and Linda (Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez) whose husbands died in the same botched heist. Mixing in a political rivalry in Chicago’s South Side, the plot is crowded by too many characters trying to steal attention, but the sections delivered mostly land solid emotional or narrative impact even if they can clash in focus.
Viola Davis delivers such effortless perfection time and again–in ways even Cate Blanchett or Meryl Streep don’t always convey–that expectations for an action movie deserving of her talent was one of my most highly anticipated moments of the year. The role is dense and difficult, and she makes it look effortless. A tough, wealthy woman knocked out by her husband’s risky business, she delves into each stage of grief as she tries to dig herself out of her husband’s felonious grave. There’s plenty toward the end I’d love to discuss, promoting some of her strongest work, but that would risk ruining some fantastic surprises. Elizabeth Debicki in her finest performance to date is a livewire abuse survivor slipping into desperate, dangerously familiar circumstances as she joins the life-changing or ruining endeavor. Her scene buying guns for the heist is absolutely brilliant, and each slight on her dignity wears just a little bit deeper for a woman never before valued below outer beauty. Her two scenes with Oscar-nominee Jacki Weaver as her mother are such shockingly vital opening performances that you can’t help to be obsessed with her portion of the crime. Michelle Rodriguez is given a bit of a trope position as widow-with-children, so she gets lost in a bit of the showier, more unique roles. Cynthia Erivo, solidifying her position as cinematic newcomer of the year (her Janelle Monae moment), captures every ounce of her position as the fourth woman–the outsider–in the outfit. Her upcoming Harriet Tubman biopic should skyrocket her after her Tony-winning The Color Purple success, so maybe my dream casting of her as Elphaba is not so firmly situated in that pipe.
The men are more of a mixed bag. Colin Farrell is malevolent, but that’s been his wheelhouse since Daredevil; but Robert Duvall as his politician father was a major miss. Duvall seemed to be reading off cue cards through half his scenes. The husbands have limited screen time, so don’t expect a lot of Jon Bernthal or Liam Neeson. The highlights are very much Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya as somewhat-retiring gangsters and aspiring political family are the bad cop and fucking-crazy cop attempting to take back their neighborhood from the Farrell-Duvall clan. The Kaluuya’s scenes menacing obstacles in their way are deeply unsettling, especially the rap battle with his ice cold stare. Brian Tyree Henry, though not in a position for the unsettling scenes, he proves his ability the capture attention: a great leading man given the right film. The story is mostly about the complicated women though. They had their lives suddenly changed, and they’re riding the wave of its recoil.
Adapted from a 1983 British miniseries, it shows it in its density and its cluttered nature. I imagine it will prove itself in rewatches; I was enthralled with the movie and managing high expectations are rough for me. That’s why I try not watching trailers, but Steve McQueen will get me bouncing with jeans from the announcement of his films. Female led drama and action are sorely needed, and though not without its faults, Widows is one of the best action films of the year, and I hope it succeeds like it deserves.