A com­mand­ing turn from Vi­ola Davis in ‘Widows’

The Freeman - - ENTERTAINMENT -

When you think of the wives and girl­friends of crim­i­nals and mob­sters in cin­ema and tele­vi­sion, what or who comes to mind? Kay Adams? Elvira Han­cock? Skyler White? They are ei­ther vic­tims of a man’s mis­deeds or end up be­com­ing part of the prob­lem. They might get fancy jewelry or a big house, but they are the ones who get shut out of the room. They get greedy. They get ad­dicted. They get killed. And, as an un­writ­ten rule, they are se­condary.

It’s part of the rea­son why Steve Mc­Queen’s “Widows” is such a wel­come cock­tail: The wives are the ones in the spot­light. Their hus­bands, the crim­i­nals fetishized by so, so many movies, are the ones who die at the be­gin­ning.

In his first film since the Os­car-win­ning “12 Years a Slave,” Mc­Queen has gone in a very dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion with this Lynda La Plante adap­ta­tion. “Widows” is a B-movie thriller with an all-star en­sem­ble and a dust­ing of art house cred. Mc­Queen co-wrote it with “Gone Girl” au­thor Gil­lian Flynn and it is dark, re­lent­lessly in­tense and crafted for mass au­di­ence ap­peal.

And who bet­ter to stare down the cam­era, and ev­ery seedy char­ac­ter the city of Chicago has to of­fer, from cor­rupt legacy politi­cians (Colin Far­rell and Robert Duvall) to truly ter­ri­fy­ing gang mus­cle (“Get Out’s” Daniel Kalu­uya), than the in­com­pa­ra­ble Vi­ola Davis?

Davis plays Veron­ica Rawl­ins, a well-heeled teacher’s union rep­re­sen­ta­tive who is mar­ried to a very pow­er­ful and very bad man, Harry Rawl­ins (Liam Nee­son). Harry has done well in a cor­rupt Chicago — the pas­sion­ate cou­ple share a sleek high-rise Lake Shore Drive apart­ment, a driver and all the niceties that sort of real es­tate im­plies. But when he and his crew (in­clud­ing Jon Bern­thal and Manuel Gar­cia-Rulfo) get gunned down dur­ing a rob­bery gone wrong, Veron­ica is the one the ag­grieved come after to col­lect.

Un­for­tu­nately for her, the crew her late hus­band was steal­ing $2 mil­lion from are also a pow­er­ful, mur­der­ous and, now, an­gry, ri­val set of crim­i­nals. They’re led by Ja­mal Man­ning (Brian Tyree Henry) and his brother Jatemme (Kalu­uya), and have un­til this point man­aged to keep the peace with Rawl­ins’ crew. Ja­mal is run­ning for al­der­man of his South Side neigh­bor­hood that is a strong­hold of a Chicago po­lit­i­cal dy­nasty, the Mul­li­gans (Duvall and Far­rell) that main­tains prop­erty there only as a front — and the Man­nings need the money to take them down.

One on-the-nose, but star­tlingly ef­fec­tive, se­quence, shows Jack Mul­li­gan’s drive home from the projects to his own gilded, heav­ily armed part of the neigh­bor­hood. This is just con­text for what’s go­ing on with Veron­ica and it will all come to­gether even­tu­ally, with some good twists and turns in the mix.

Ja­mal threat­ens Veron­ica to col­lect what was stolen and she de­cides to step into Harry’s shoes and en­list the widows of his crew to help. There’s Linda (Michelle Ro­driguez), a mother of two whose Quincean­era shop has been re­pos­sessed be­cause of her late hus­band’s gam­bling habits, and Alice (El­iz­a­beth De­bicki), a woman who has been mis­treated by every­one in her life, from her hus­band to her mother, who sug­gests she be­come a high-end sex worker.

All are ba­si­cally riffs on the typ­i­cal film “vic­tim wife,” only here they get to take charge and plan and ex­e­cute the elab­o­rate heist. Veron­ica is a tough boss and pushes Alice and Linda, and even­tu­ally Belle (Cyn­thia Erivo), to re­al­ize their own power as they amus­ingly use their skills, whether plain street savvy or just tak­ing ad­van­tage of the fact that they are un­der­es­ti­mated and over­looked sim­ply by be­ing women (a point that is much bet­ter made here than in “Ocean’s 8”).

The en­sem­ble is a blast. Every­one gets their mo­ment and you come away feel­ing like you re­ally got to know most of them, but it is Davis and her un­for­get­tably sear­ing in­ten­sity (and killer wardrobe) who owns “Widows” from start to fin­ish.

Mc­Queen builds ten­sion mas­ter­fully through­out, although is so sprawl­ing that at times you’re left won­der­ing whether this might have been bet­ter told as a lim­ited tele­vi­sion series. Then again, is it worth com­plain­ing about rel­a­tive brevity when done this well?

Vi­ola Davis leads the en­sem­ble cast in Steve Mc­Queen’s fe­male-driven re­venge thriller, his first film since ’12 Years a Slave.’

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