A heist thriller with arthouse flourishes



131 minutes/Opens today/4 stars

The story: After a criminal gang is wiped out during a botched robbery, the women in their lives pick up the pieces. Although Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) are strangers to one another, they are bonded by financial debt and grief. There is a way to fix their money problems, but they will have to crack a safe to get it.

Heist movies have a problem.

At heart, they are procedurals, stories of smart people accomplishing the impossible using realistic methods.

But the genre frequently disappoints because of writing that goes for the cheap win.

Unbreakable security? Hello, genius hacker. An army of guards with guns? Meet a bunch of lads with bigger guns and better aim. Keys? Here comes the world’s best pickpocket.

Meanwhile, fill up the dull spots with a “guys doing things” montage set to a Motown track (for a comedy) or hard rock (for a drama about brotherhood and bullets).

The thrilling, emotional Widows is so satisfying because it not only does not skimp on the stuff that makes heist movies tick, but it also ups the ante.

The crooks are a bunch of underdogs for whom the score is not so much about the money as it is an act of self-affirmation, and it does all that without overtly making it an ode to “sisters doing it for themselves”.

Director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of a 1980s British television series of the same name pivots on the character of Veronica, played by the astonishing Davis, who can flash from vulnerable to steely and back again in a heartbeat.

She might be the leader of the ring, but like the other women, she is operating under a cloud of grief and betrayal.

McQueen’s power as a film-maker shows in how he makes the crime an act of therapy.

For the women, their reasons for participating vary, but without directly addressing it, McQueen makes the act of safecracking feel not just natural, but also inevitable.

The screenplay, penned by McQueen and Gillian Flynn, author of mystery-thriller Gone Girl and screenwriter of the 2014 film adaptation, turns the racial politics of Chicago into a vivid part of the story, rather than uses it for texture.

McQueen throws in arthouse flourishes, such as cutting to an action’s prelude or aftermath instead of showing the act. However, that would merely be artifice without his unerring ability to find the emotional heart of a scene.

Whether it is veteran politician Tom Mulligan’s (Robert Duvall) humiliating dressing-down of son and protege Jack (Colin Farrell), or the awkward, creepy exchanges between widow Alice (Debicki) and the man who pays for sexual favours, David (Lukas Haas), this movie makes the moments leading up to the heist matter as much as, if not more than, the heist itself.  

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