By John H. Foote
Directed by Academy Award winner Steve McQueen, the guiding force behind the Oscar winning Best Picture 12 Years a Slave (2013), this high octane caper film is a twist on both heist pictures, and in its own way noir. Dark, nasty, twisting, these are not the sort of people you care to encounter in life, you would just never be able to tell when they would put a bullet in your head, or back, which is more likely. As with all McQueen’s work, this is radically different from anything he has done previous, and like his other work is well cast with a terrific group of some of the best actors in movies.
It opens with a stunning juxtaposition as we are introduced to the widows, and at the same time see the botched robbery that cost each of them their husband or partner. Veronica (Viola Davis) deeply mourns the loss of her husband because this is the second major loss in her life, having lost their teenage son a few years before. When a local drug dealer visits her after her husband’s funeral and intimidates her, threatens her to pay back the two million dollars he stole from him, which is assumed gone up in smoke in the robbery, she is terrified because she knows this man means business. The mobster’s hitman is a dangerous psychotic, who like big brother, likes to intimidate and play games before he kills. He is portrayed with alarming intensity by last year’s break out star from Get Out (2017), Daniel Kaluuya, who is astonishing in a part light years away from his work last year. His baleful stare is genuinely frightening, and it is quickly made apparent he is lethal, when he turns up people are going to die. Like a dangerous cat he likes to play with his prey before killing it, but make no mistake, they are going to die.
Veronica, out of desperation rounds up two of the other widows and hatches a scheme to get the money she needs and maybe take care of them as well. Her husband, Rawlins (Liam Neeson) wrote down all of his jobs in a journal which she is now in possession of. She believes with the right group, trained properly, they can pull off a heist and bring them five million dollars. What they do not realize is that the person they are going to hit is at the very top of food chain, and equally dangerous.
With her crew, Veronica prepares for the robbery, constantly on the edge, knowing one mistake could bring them down. Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Ervin and Elizabeth Debicki are exceptional as her partners in crime, each given a task, each with different ways of getting done what needs to be done.
The plot just keeps twisting and there are a couple of jaw dropping twists I did not see coming….at all. One will gut Veronica; stun her with the betrayal of her life. The heist goes almost as planned, but the complications that do creep up are major events that cannot be ignored. The girls are brought to the edge of ruin.
Davis is outstanding at the head of this cast, giving a commanding performance of a desperate woman somehow staying in control for the sole reason she must! Given thirty days to make right the theft of the money, she has no choice but to hold things together. Utterly fearless when pushed, the role is something very different for her. As her husband, Liam Neeson is never quite what he seems, the sort of guy who could love her for twenty years and then disappear in a puff of smoke. It is a nice reminder of his enormous gifts as an actor, and builds hope that either Scorsese or Spielberg make that George Washington biography with him.
Colin Farrell does well with his politician in over his head, wanting out, but knowing he must keep his father’s legacy intact. Robert Duvall is ferocious as Farrell’s corrupt father, the angry old man who must leave politics but pulls the strings behind his son, or at least thinks he does.
Where the film soars is in showing the cost of a life, what you are willing to do, and tasks if you are prepared to live with those choices?
McQueen keeps the film hurtling along at a brisk pace, but his actors never fail him, digging deep into their characters. Davis could receive Oscar consideration for Best Actress, and Kaluuya should be an absolute front runner for Best Supporting Actor, he was terrifying.
Widows promises to be an audience favourite.
BEN IS BACK
The second film to deal with teenage drug addiction I have encountered this year, Beautiful Boy being the first. Ben is Back is attracting attention because it stars Julia Roberts in a demanding role in which she does outstanding work, but is failed by the screenplay.
Out shopping with her kids, Holly (Roberts) returns home to find her wayward son Ben (Lucas Hedges) has arrived home for Christmas. This puzzles her, and her children, most of all her mistrustful husband because Ben is in yet another rehab trying to get clean. His addiction has turned their lives upside down, and up to his arrival, Holly thinks she has seen and heard it all, but realizes quickly she knows nothing about her son.
Ben is buoyant charm and happy to be home, but he is dishonest, lies to his mother constantly, and in a trip to the local shopping mall, is spotted by some people who want him to pay for the betrayals he brought upon them. He spots the people who see him and knows that it will be around town very quickly that he is home. The family attend church on Christmas Eve where the growing awareness of what he has done to his family and others begins to hit home, causing him to weep in the church. Touched, his mother gently rests her head on his shoulder, hoping all might be well.
Returning home they find their home robbed, broken into and a mess left. Worse, the beloved family dog has been taken. Holly suspects Ben knows who did it and together, despite the protests of her husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance), the two of them head off into the night to find the dog. The journey overwhelms Holly who learns her son prostituted himself to a school teacher (male), broke into homes to get drugs or steal money, was a dealer, and got himself in deep with a dealer who has taken offence to Ben leaving the life. It seems the farther into the black of the night they go, the darker his life becomes.
The problem with the film is the same one I had with Beautiful Boy, what drove Ben to get addicted to drugs? Small town boredom? It can happen, a challenging life at home, though everyone seems to love each other, though no one, with reasons, trusts him. It feels too often like a TV movie with strong language, and might be better suited for HBO or Showtime rather than the big screen.
That said the performances, two of them at least, are remarkable.
Lucas Hedges, so good in Manchester by the Sea (2016) is astounding as Ben, tormented by what his actions have done to his family, and though determined to break free of the auction, he just cannot manage to do so. Filled with genuine self-loathing, hating what he has brought upon his family, placing them in danger at the hands of drug dealers, he is terribly conflicted. He feels terrible guilt for the death of a young girl he hooked on drugs, and knows his mother and sister are as afraid of him as much as they love. It is a terrific performance that furthers this young man’s career.
Roberts has always been a good actress, and at times shown flashes of greatness. There were moments of brilliance in Pretty Woman (1990), and that Oscar winning work in Erin Brockovich (2000) cannot be denied, nor can her superb, under-appreciated turn in Closer (2004), so it’s no surprise that she delivers the goods here. She has a key scene in which she sits down in a food court with the doctor who first prescribed her son pain killers, the beginning of her nightmare. Tormented by what her son has done, but as much for him as for her family, the agony registers clearly on her face, the weight of his actions wear her down. Like any parent the guilt she feels is staggering, her love fierce, and her grief and disappointment haunting every moment of her waking life.
Written and directed by Peter Hedges, father to Lucas, I wish I could say the film was better than it is, because the intentions are noble. Tough to watch, especially I think if families have suffered through this sort of hell.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.