That said: the direction is on point, the cinematography is masterful, the acting is a master class, and the political intrigue illuminating. So Widows fully succeeds, and it even has its own little Anton Chigurh in Daniel Kaluuya. I like it. A lot. But it's not a complete home run.
Several scenes seem to exist to annoy the viewer.
There isn't enough time dedicated to anyone character to invest you enough to truly care.
It comes across as the basic everyone's a crap human and these wives are left in the wake.
Arguably the most ambitious heist movie since Heat (1995), just as did Michael Mann's epic, Widows has aspirations far beyond the limits of its genre. Written by Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn, and directed by McQueen, the film is based on the 1983 ITV series, written by Lynda La Plante. Operating firmly within a genre framework, it tries to filter the basic heist template through a feminist pseudo-#MeToo prism, taking in political corruption, police homicide, Black Lives Matter, institutional racism, American gun culture, hegemonic masculinity, and the importance of wealth. The problem, however, is that it tries to pack far too much into too short a space of time. Whilst I can certainly appreciate and celebrate how progressive the narrative is, placing a black woman at the centre of a genre traditionally dominated by white men, the film still needs to work as a genre piece. And this is where Widows fails most egregiously.
Widows tells the story of a team of women - Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and Belle (Cynthia Erivo) - who attempt to pull off a heist originally planned by their now deceased husbands, and set against the backdrop of an election for the alderman of Chicago's 18th Ward, contested by Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry).
McQueen and Flynn use the material as a vehicle for a racially-tinted critique of both powerful men and the corrupt systems that enable them. By creating a canvas depicting life at various social strata in Chicago - from the inherited white privilege of Jack to the poor black neighbourhoods of Jamal to the "everything is a transaction" philosophy of high-powered real-estate - the film attempts to address a plethora of racial, political, and gender issues. And herein lies the problem. Rather than trying to deal with one or two core issues, it instead tries to deal with upwards of about seven, and ends up saying little of relevance about any.
Which is not to say, of course, that none of the themes are foregrounded. Gender, for example, is built into the plot, especially in relation to notions of subverting the patriarchal status quo. As they prepare the heist, Veronica tells the team that their greatest strength is the element of surprise, because "no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off". Later, she reminds them they have "to look and move like a team of men". Whilst on the heist itself, they have to disguise their voices so no one realises they're women.
Another theme is macroeconomics. An excellent shot in this respect is when Jack and his assistant Siobhan (Molly Kunz) travel from a poor black neighbourhood to an affluent white suburb. Filmed in a single-take, Sean Bobbitt's camera remains fixed on the car's bonnet, with only a portion of the windshield and one of the side-mirrors visible. Meanwhile, we see the city change in real-time in the background, taking only a couple of minutes to go from skid row to millionaire's row, forcing the audience to acknowledge how thin the line is, geographically speaking, between rich and poor.
For me though, the whole thing was underwhelming and predictable, with a twist that's as ridiculous as they come, and a narrative that relies far too much on coincidence and movie-logic. The widows need to disguise their voices on the job? Good thing that Belle's daughter has a gizmo that does exactly that! A highly successful modern-day thief who writes everything down longhand? A team of people (irrespective of gender and race) who teach themselves how to pull off a major heist in a matter of weeks? For all its real-world social and political concerns, I never once bought into the premise that these four women could actually pull this off, and that undermines everything else.
Just because a film addresses certain themes doesn't mean it earns a free pass ("look, Hollywood cares about poor people; we better not criticise the ridiculous plot"), and from a narrative standpoint, Widows is pretty ludicrous. With the plot often feeling contorted to support the themes, rather than the themes arising from the plot, McQueen's didactic concerns overridden his storytelling. More a vehicle for protestation than anything else, because the central heist narrative can't stand on its own, the very real issues that the film addresses are flattened and neutered. The socio-political commentary, for the most part, is never really integrated into the narrative - so you end up with a film that feels like its preaching at you rather than talking to you. If it had embraced its genre a bit more, and eased back on the homiletics, it would have worked much better.
You don't expect McQueen to be remaking ITV Lydia La Plante fare. And do you know what, he shouldn't have. It's an un-involving mess. Trying to be true to the source, trying to have a feminist reboot, and trying to be The Wire.
Some see this as a rip-roaring heist. I was bored. The plot is clunky, the script clunkier; but them critics are blinded by McQueen.
With HUNGER, SHAME and 12 YEARS A SLAVE, Steve McQueen has proven himself as a director with such a specific vision, you can decipher it's one of his films just by watching a few moments. He's fond of long takes and negative space within a frame, always choosing carefully what he wants to show the audience and what he doesn't. With smaller art films, his aesthetic feels unique and welcome, but I worried when word got out that his next film would tackle a specific genre...the heist film. I breathed a sigh of relief when WIDOWS, which he also co-wrote with Gillian Flynn (GONE GIRL), is a sprawling, excitingly tense thriller and one of the year's best films.
Although it stars Viola Davis, every single principal cast members has a chance to shine in this twisty tale of a group of widows drawn into completing a robbery left unfinished when their criminal husbands meet an unfortunate end. McQueen intercuts this powerful opening sequence with comparatively serene flashbacks which introduce our main characters and their soon-to-die spouses. The juxtaposition sets the tone for the rest of the film, one meant to catch the viewer off guard.
Davis plays Veronica, whose husband Harry (Liam Neeson) leads his gang to their doom. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and Amanda (Carrie Coon) make up the other widows and the plot kicks into gear when a politican/gangster named Jamal Manning (a fantastically hypnotic Brian Tyree Henry) gives Veronica thirty days to come up with $2 million to replace the money her husband stole from him. Jamal's henchman, Jatemme (a memorably frightening Daniel Kaluuya), will stop at nothing to help his brother achieve this goal, and the violence that ensues feels viscerally traumatizing. Complicating matters further, Jamal has a political rival, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), a rich and soulless power broker who also factors heavily in the case of the stolen money. Their campaigns for Alderman frame the macro story, giving us a corrupt society in which to experience the micro story of the heist.
Unlike the OCEANS 11 franchise, where the mechanics of the theft take center stage, McQueen focuses on the characters, making this a particularly rich, layered entry into the genre. Davis gives a commanding performance, although it's intensely humorless, but appropriate considering the circumstances. She drives the action, but remains the strong, steady heroine while generously allowing her co-stars to walk away with the film. It's not that she's bad. She's great, especially in her vulnerable moments, including an unexpected slapping scene or one in which some unexpected information punctures her mask of control.
Rodriguez, however, knocked me out. Usually the strong, silent type, she has a scene of intense vulnerability, showing us a new side to her. Debicki, so hauntingly strange in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2, knocks her role out of the park as an abused woman who discovers her independence. Robert Duvall, at 86, stunned me as Farrell's racist, hideous monster of a father, Jacki Weaver, as usual, excels as Debicki's mother from hell and Lukas Haas impressed as an assured man who hires Debicki for sexual companionship during her more desperate times. Special mention also goes to Cynthia Erivo as an extremely athletic driver for the women who refuses to take any stuff from Davis. She's a Broadway star who has blasted onto the film scene this year, and I'm excited to see what she does next.
McQueen relies on a lot of fractured imagery in the film, beautifully shot by his longtime cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, but the centerpiece of this film is a long take from outside a limo as Farrell and his aide drive from a poor section of town to a wealthy one. Never once cutting to his actors, we hear their scheming while reflecting on the economic disparity which acts as an overall theme of the film. It's scenes like this which separate McQueen from lesser filmmakers who would have kept the camera on the actors' faces. The film also has memorable scenes involving a very cute doggy, terror on a basketball court and in a bowling alley, and a gorgeous moment of release in the end. Not to spoil anything, but the last shot had a similar emotional impact on me that William Hurt's final close-up did in THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST.
WIDOWS has a lot of story, but it's easy to follow and, for me, feels like an epically satisfying meal. Although nothing new when it comes to female empowerment stories, the beauty is in the telling of it. McQueen proves that it's possible to be on the edge of your seat AND care about the people you're watching.