“In “Widows,” the power of Davis’s performance is that she lets you know, in every scene, that Veronica is living in a world of treachery.”
Steve McQueen’s real-world heist movie gives Viola Davis a powerful role as a crime widow who takes cold-eyed command of her desperation.
Speaking on stage at the Toronto International Film Festival, right before the premiere of “Widows,” his first movie since “12 Years a Slave” (which was five years ago), director Steve McQueen talked about how important it was to set movies in the world of real, recognizable human beings. A lot of us would second that sentiment, yet it’s still not what you expect to hear from someone who’s introducing a heist film. The genre has been around in a major way since the early ’50s, and the template has always been this: When characters get together to plan and execute a robbery, we may see the quiet desperation of their lives, we may taste an ashy undertone of cynical “reality,” but it’s really all about the trip-wire cleverness of the crime itself. Heist movies unfold in a caper-film bubble, and that, one way or another, is their key pleasure.
But “Widows,” as McQueen implied, is another story. It’s a movie in which three women, whose husbands all perished in a robbery gone wrong, band together to steal $5 million, even though none of them has the slightest experience at acting like a criminal. And the web of dire circumstances that lead them to hatch this scheme in no mere set-up — it’s the dramatic heart of the movie. “Widows,” adapted from a British TV crime drama that was first broadcast in 1983, has a script co-written by McQueen and the novelist and screenwriter Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl,” “Sharp Objects”), and it presents an enjoyably dark and sleazy vision of ordinary lives intertwining with the hurly-burly of street thuggery, local machine politics, and half a dozen other forms of daily corruption.
The movie, set in contemporary Chicago, opens with Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis) and her husband, Harry (Liam Neeson), who happens to be major crook, kissing the hell out of each other in bed. The simple fact of a mixed-race marriage presented this casually is still startling to see in a mainstream movie, to the point that we can’t help but invest this passionate pair with a certain romantic idealism. But that’s snuffed pretty quickly. Their early moments are intercut with a turbulent chase, seen from the vantage of a getaway van with its back doors banging open, that ends with Harry and his crew being fired on by the police, until the van explodes into flames, killing all the men onboard. So much for domestic bliss.
Veronica is suddenly a widow. More than that, she’s a widow whose husband left her owing $2 million. That’s how much he stole from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who’s running for alderman of his ward, but he’s also a strong-arm crook who demands that Veronica liquidate her assets, including the sprawling penthouse she lives in, to pay him back.
Viola Davis’s commanding performance roots this scenario in icy fear and shock. Veronica can’t believe what’s happened to her (overnight, she has lost everything), and her eyes tell you that she knows it’s just going to get worse. She keeps having flashbacks to her life with Harry, including one where they nuzzle to Nina Simone singing “Wild Is the Wind.” It’s hard not to notice that Davis, her hair cut short, her eyes beams of fury, would be an ideal actress to portray Nina Simone. She has that kind of force.