Viola Davis and Viola Davis’ snot team up again for “Widows,” in which — as always seems to happen to this gifted actor/sobber — her character has a tough time.
Two huge tragedies and several lesser ones lead to waterworks from Davis’ Veronica in the Chicago-based thriller. One occurs before the start of the movie (I won’t spoil it, since it’s not revealed until later) and another before the credits roll.
Veronica’s husband (Liam Neeson) is a high-stakes crook but a robbery goes south in the film’s opening, which cuts between hot Davis/Neeson sex and a bungled getaway that leaves him and his co-crooks dead. There’s no time for grieving, though, because Veronica inherits huge mob debts she can only settle by pulling off a big job that hubby helpfully outlined before he croaked.
“Widows” comes from writer Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) and director Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) and a big part of the caper’s fun is the tension between her pulpy, twisty sensibility and his slower-burning instincts.
On its most entertaining level, “Widows” is an assemble-a-team-and-execute-a-plan movie, in the vein of “Rififi” and “Baby Driver”: We’re clued into enough specifics of a robbery at the home of a corrupt politician (Colin Farrell) for it to be suspenseful when we recognize that parts of the carefully planned job are going awry.
You’ll want to attend closely to Veronica rounding up her team, which includes other women whose spouses died in the robbery-gone-wrong (played by Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Carrie Coon). A gifted stylist who searches for ways to freshen up stuff we’ve seen a million times, McQueen dazzles with that muscular opening sequence, and he makes sure every subsequent detail is significant. The central interracial relationship? There’s a reason for it. Veronica always hauling around her yippy dog? There’s a reason for it. Coon’s reluctance to participate? You guessed it.
McQueen’s technical mastery inspires confidence in his storytelling abilities, and that’s crucial, because the turn-on-a-dime “Widows” needs us to overlook some of its dicier elements until after the closing credits roll.
The film attempts to comment on social justice issues in a way that doesn’t quite work, with a ripped-from-the-headlines development that awkwardly uses injustice as a plot point. And the movie feels overstuffed, particularly in scenes between Farrell and his racist politico dad (a scenery-gnawing Robert Duvall). If that subplot were cut, we’d also be spared Farrell’s hey-I-hear-you-Chicagoans-pronounce-your-A’s-differently attempt at an accent. (To be fair, nobody in the movie sounds like they’ve ever been to Illinois — it’s as if the dialogue coach fed them a Chicago-style pizza and hoped the dialect would sink in by osmosis.)
Veronica doesn’t sound like she’s from the Windy City, either, but it’s Davis’ gravity and intelligence that anchor the movie. When she says, “The best thing we have going for us is who we are,” you believe it’s possible for a team of criminal newbies to pull the wool over the eyes of the mob, the cops and the Chicago machine.
Davis knows it’s just as powerful to withhold big emotions as it is to deliver them, which is why it’s a brilliant choice for McQueen to end “Widows” on an image we have not previously seen in this movie, or in most of the others the actor appears in: her broad, dazzling smile.