Widows wanders but redeems itself in the end

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Widows, starring Viola Davis, turns the traditional heist movie into a smart take on women’s power.
20th Century Fox Widows, starring Viola Davis, turns the traditional heist movie into a smart take on women’s power. 20th Century Fox

The classic heist movie gets a stylish, topical treatment with Widows, cowritten by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and Steve McQueen (Shame, 12 Years a Slave), who also directed. It could be seen as a gender-swapped caper flick, but with McQueen’s philosophical eye and Flynn’s take on societal expectations, Widows turns into an examination of gendered and generational traps, turning desperate measures in desperate times into seizing independence and power.

Three women—Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis), Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez), and Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki)—are suddenly widowed when their husbands are killed by the police following a botched robbery. This is the only connection between them—they are not friends or colleagues, they don’t know each other—but they all feel the weight of cleaning up their husbands’ messes. Veronica’s situation is a little more desperate: her husband, Harry (Liam Neeson), evidently stole millions from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a criminal-cum-politician. Manning threatens Veronica’s life, safety, and even her dog, unless she returns the money, every dollar, within a month.

Two strong subplots carry the theme of defying expectations and shattering defined roles. First, there is Alice, who suffered abuse under her now-deceased husband (Jon Bernthal) that continues from her mother (Jacki Weaver). Through a website designed to match wealthy men with younger women, she takes up with an architect (Lukas Haas) who wants a relationship in every way except for the ones that challenge him. He has the cash, he wields the power. This more or less works out until Alice attempts to assert some independence. Meanwhile, longtime politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) faces an election against Manning, as he attempts to emerge from the racist shadow of his father (Robert Duvall) and his outmoded ways of running things.

While these two storylines carry a great deal of symbolic meaning in the film, they are also a strong drag on the narrative. Far too long is spent tracking down the meaning of some blueprints in a go-nowhere subplot. Alice is a terrific character and Debicki is great in the role, but her character goes through repeat versions of the same conversation before arriving exactly where we thought she would. Mulligan, though well-written and realized by an actor who has never delivered a bad performance, is basically adrift in this story until it’s revealed that he’s crucial, though even that moment is treated like an afterthought. Duvall, though always a pleasure to watch, could have been cut and the movie would be essentially the same.

The effort to make an unconventional heist movie is to be applauded, and there are many things that will stay with the viewer. Every performance is award-caliber—Davis and Rodriguez shine, but Cynthia Erivo deserves special recognition for her performance in a role best left unspoiled. The underlying tensions of race and class boil to the surface in powerful ways, and viewers will find themselves personally invested in the success of this operation, but it takes far too many detours on its way to the exciting conclusion. A narrative stumble but a stylistic and thematic success, overall Widows is worth your time.

Widows

R, 129 minutes;Alamo Drafthouse, Regal Stonefield, and Violet Crown

OPENING this week (Check theater websites for complete listings.)

 Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056, drafthouse.com/charlottesville z Pokémon the Movie: The Power of Us

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213, regmovies.com z Green Book, The Front Runner

Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000, charlottesville.violetcrown.com z Green Book, Robin Hood

See it again

The Last Waltz 

PG, 117 minutes;
The Paramount Theater / November 23

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