'Widows' balances ensemble cast well

20th Century Fox

In some ensemble films, it is easy to get caught up in which big name actor is in it and how much screentime everyone gets. Sometime, it is distracting to the film and ultimately, it doesn’t work.

“Widows” is not one you have to worry about. Although it is modeled after a heist movie – a genre that does well for ensemble casts – the job is more of a backdrop instead of a main plot.

Instead, the movie is driven by survival. Director Steve McQueen knows a thing or two about the subject, having directed Best Picture winner “12 Years a Slave.” In this film, McQueen delves into that subject once again.

The titular widows in the film (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Carrie Coon) have to deal with the ramifications of their husbands’ criminal lives before they met their fiery end in a failed heist.

Davis’ character, Veronica, is the ringleader, taking on the role of her departed husband Harry, (Liam Neeson). Tasked with recovering money Harry and his crew stole that had burned up along with them, Veronica puts together a team of her fellow widows, informing them that they are as much responsible as she is. Coon’s Amanda is out, but Rodriguez’ Linda and Debicki’s Alice are in.

From there you see not only the usual planning but also grieving as well, and a side plot involving political corruption that in most movies would seem tacked on carries a lot of weight to the plot.

Alice, Linda and Veronica aren’t doing it for themselves or because they want to; rather, they have to. Villainous brothers played by Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya – in a very dark turn – make sure of it. The lone one who wants in just to help is Cynthia Erivo’s Belle, who is one of the best parts of this already good movie.

McQueen’s direction makes it feel like more than just a movie about black or white, right or wrong, even if it includes all those themes as he finds a perfect balance in a movie that could have gone very wrong.

What I liked:

• Davis is a rockstar as she always is. I loved her work in “Fences” and I still think she should have been nominated as a leading actress instead of supporting as she owned that movie more than Denzel Washington. In “Widows,” she is more understated but nonetheless still effective.

• Although Davis is excellent, she is matched every step by Erivo, who has burst onto the scene this year as we last saw her in another ensemble film: “Bad Times at the El Royale.” As Belle, she commands respect from Veronica the first time she meets her and one can feel the authority in her voice. Erivo is going to be a star and she is only 31.

• Kaluuya, who is one of the best actors right now in terms of being able to use just a look to convey his message – like in “Get Out” – is terrifying as the enforcer for Jamal Manning’s criminal enterprise. While Jamal (Tyree Henry) is working hard to legitimize himself and beat Colin Farrell in an election, Jatemme (Kaluuya) toys with his victims and plays the sociopath well.

• Farrell could have played the uncouth bad boy he usually does, but in this role as an heir to a political dynasty, McQueen lets us see behind the curtain that Jack Mulligan (Farrell) might well be a victim of circumstance. Clashing with his overbearing father, Tom – played by Robert Duvall in his first role in two years – we see a little of what Farrell is going through.

What I didn’t like:

• While McQueen did a good job in balancing the storylines, I do feel that there could have been a few things made more clear instead of left up to interpretation. There were a few artistic choices early that made it hard to follow what was going on that I think could have been left without to make it easier to digest.

Reason to watch: For a good drama during this holiday period and to also see some fine acting, this is the movie for you.

Rating: R for strong language, nudity and violence.

My score: 93/100

Jordan Bishop is a member of the Stillwater News Press’ weekly movie podcast “Reel Talk” and can be reached at jbishop@stwnewspress.com.

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