‘Lila and Eve’ Review: Viola Davis and Jennifer Lopez Tackle Loss in Powerful Vigilante Thriller

Actresses play grieving moms out for revenge in a film that makes up for its familiar beats with moments of deep insight

Viola Davis, Jennifer Lopez in 'Lila & Eve'

A lovingly crafted B-level melodrama elevated by its remarkable central performance, “Lila and Eve” feels like Viola Davis’ “Still Alice.” In a just world, this deeply compassionate and politically relevant revenge fantasy would do for Davis what last year’s Alzheimer’s odyssey did for Julianne Moore: deliver a long overdue Oscar to one of the finest actresses of her generation.

Unfortunately, a quiet day-and-date rollout seems to all but condemn the film to immediate oblivion.

Though the current #BlackLivesMatter movement rightly focuses on the lives cut short by police brutality, it has yet to bring the pandemic emotional devastation of communities losing their children en masse to mainstream consciousness. (This is in part due to how news institutions debate the guilt of each young black man after his death — a distraction from the individual and collective trauma such losses engender.)

Though the fatal drive-by shooting that incites “Lila and Eve’s” plan for vengeance has nothing to do with the police, it’s the cops’ eager willingness to dismiss 18-year-old Stephon’s (Aml Ameen) death as just another unsolvable casualty in the drug-turf wars — and by extension his mother’s desperate need for justice — that sets the fast-moving plot into motion. A month after her older son’s killing, Lila (Davis) is unable to embrace the agenda of acceptance, forgiveness and baked goods of her grieving mothers’ support group. She quickly gravitates toward the group’s one other dissident, Eve (Jennifer Lopez), who recognizes in her new friend the roiling but unexpressable bloodlust Stephon’s death has begotten.

Their first revenge killing is accidental if justified; Eve shoots a gangbanger just as he pulls out his own revolver. “He’s somebody’s child,” stammers a shocked Lila, but she’s all too susceptible to Eve’s urgings that they threaten and kill their way up the local drug operation’s hierarchy to figure out who exactly is responsible for Lila’s son’s death. When the two women eventually corner the kingpin (Chris Chalk) who ordered the hit on Stephon, he mocks Lila’s pain by laying the blame for her son’s death on her: if she had been a better mother, her firstborn son would still be alive. Or maybe, he winks, it’s just society’s fault. Whoever we should hold responsible, the film makes clear, culpability isn’t as simple as whoever pulled the trigger.

None too careful to conceal themselves, Lila and Eve are eventually pursued by the same gangsters they’ve been chasing, while the detective (Shea Whigham) who fails to find Stephon’s killer strings together the trail of bodies his grieving mother has left in her wake. But the familiar thriller aspects are nowhere near as compelling as the two women’s angry rejection of the unbearable powerlessness they’ve been told isn’t just their lot to bear, but the right way to respond to their grief.

LilaAndEve_ViolaDavisLila needs to do something other than clean her house to regain a sense of control over her life, and being around the trigger-happy Eve is at least preferable to spending time with those who tell her to take comfort in the fact that she still has another child. “As if I’d had a son to spare,” Lila hisses. Director Charles Stone III (“Drumline”) and screenwriter Pat Gilfillan’s mine complexity from the two women’s sorrow, as when the they justify murder with their own version of feminism. After giggling about how Ike Turner was just a skinny little thing, Eve calls their payback murders “getting [their] Tina on.”

Understated, naturalistic, and wholly real, Davis is impressive as a woman who surprises even herself by how much rage and darkness she has inside her. Lopez’s character is the more challenging one in some senses, for the film’s tonal consistency largely depends on Eve’s temptress role. The supporting actress occasionally seems more like an id-fueled sprite than a real person, but a late twist satisfactorily reveals why Eve is so sociopathically unbothered by the murders they commit.

Though more conflicted about their killing spree, Lila too has her moral compass broken by anguish that affects her far more than she had realized was possible. “Lila and Eve” is a profound portrait of loss without recourse or justice, and thus an important depiction of a state of being too many people suffer today.