GRITTY “WIDOWS” HEIST THRILLER; “DANNEMORA” ON TV
A Film and TV Review by Tim Riley
WIDOWS (Rated R) There are great things about Chicago. Wrigley Field, the Art Institute of Chicago, splendid architecture, tasty food specialties, beautiful parks and the lakefront properties on Lake Michigan. But there is the dark side that hangs on the Windy City like a bad stench. Corrupt politicians and plenty of violence with gun shootings are often in the news. Director Steve McQueen’s “Widows” lands on this sinister slice of big city life. The action is taut, tense and thrilling, right from the start. Liam Neeson’s Harry Rawlins, not his usual vigilante character this time, leads a group of men through a heist that goes terribly wrong. Rawlins and the three other criminals leave behind widows stuck with a lot of trouble rather than the financial spoils of the robbery. The bad guys victimized in the heist, and now missing millions of dollars, expect the widows to come up with the dough.Politics fits into the scene during a heated election campaign for alderman of Chicago’s 18th Ward, a newly-redrawn district that has been the domain of the Mulligan dynasty, where Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall), a racist out of touch in his new turf, is passing the reins to his son.
The younger Mulligan, Jack (Colin Farrell), is not that interested in carrying on the family tradition, but he doesn’t want to lose to his African-American opponent, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a crime boss now in search of political power. Political intrigue aside, “Widows” main focus is on the women left behind by husbands killed in a fiery clash with the police. Rawlins’ widow Veronica (Viola Davis) woefully discovers that Manning’s brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), is a brutal enforcer after the stolen money.
The missing loot was apparently going to finance Jamal Manning’s campaign, and the candidate’s henchmen descend on Veronica and the other women with threats of physical violence. Jatemme is so violent that he viciously kicks and repeatedly stabs a man in a wheelchair at a bowling alley who might know where the money is stashed. Facing financial ruin, Veronica recruits two of the widows to carry out a plan left behind in her husband’s playbook. Elizabeth Debicki’s Alice and Michelle Rodriguez’s Linda join in on the well-plotted effort. Without the fourth widow, the group gets their getaway driver from Linda’s babysitter, Belle (Cynthia Erivo), who proves to be a tough cookie. The execution of the caper is meticulous, but then severe consequences kick in.
The Manning crew is not to be outsmarted by a group of women without a previous criminal history. But then there are some other surprises in store, which only make sense after the fact. An absorbing crime thriller, “Widows” is fast-paced and exciting, and the performances of the women are outstanding. That Chicago is such a big part of the scenery also adds import to the equation.
“ESCAPE AT DANNEMORA” ON SHOWTIME
Showtime’s “Escape at Dannemora,” filmed considerably on location, is a limited event series based on the infamous 2015 prison break from Clinton Correctional Facility in the bleak area of upstate New York not far removed from the Canadian border. Both incarcerated for committing murder, Richard Matt and David Sweat became sexually involved with the prison’s tailor shop supervisor Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell, who aided their escape plan by hiding hacksaw blades in frozen hamburger meat, among other things.
That Ben Stiller is the director of this series would lead to some plausible assumptions, and during the summer TV press tour he acknowledged that the townsfolk “assumed it was going to be comedic,” but that’s not the way it is. This is a drama inside prison walls that to a large degree evokes memories of “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Escape from Alcatraz,” yet works on many psychological levels within the system as they relate to the inmates and those who oversee them.
Benicio del Toro’s Matt proves to be a talented artist trading his works for favors from the guards. Paul Dano’s Sweat, the protégé of the artist, is only too eager to satisfy the desires of the frumpy, matronly Tilly (Patricia Arquette, hardly recognizable). In the course of seven episodes, “Escape” works in parallel threads about the lives of the two inmates as well as focusing on Tilly’s bored existence with her husband, Lyle (Eric Lange), also a prison worker who’s duller than dishwater.
Matt and Sweat prove to be interesting characters. Matt, the older one, is the opportunistic one taking advantage as situations unfold, while Sweat takes on the hard work after realizing he has no other options. For her part, Tilly probably had options that would not end up in an untenable position, but her general sense of ennui is likely alleviated when Matt proposes that she run off with him and Sweat to Mexico once the escape plan comes to fruition. “Escape at Dannemora,” though often moving at a slow pace, proves riveting for the superb acting and the amount of detail that would be absent if it had been a feature film.