Steve McQueen first broke out a decade ago with the great Irish-British prison film Hunger before following it up with the spectacularly misguided Shame. He rebounded however in making the well-made 12 Years a Slave which would go to win him (and four others) an Oscar for Best Picture and earn him a nomination for Best Direction. It’s taken five years for McQueen to produce a follow up, but it is one that has been heavily anticipated for that reason. It’s also the second project this year for writer Gillian Flynn whose work was turned into the tedious and often laughable Sharp Objects and who co-wrote the film with McQueen.
Widows was originally a British series from 1983 written by Lynda La Plante and more interestingly, it was executive produced by Verity Lambert who was the original producer for Doctor Who. It’s not often that you see British series mined for American set films with the only other example I can think of being State of Play (I’m sure I’m missing one or three). The infrequency seems odd to me if only because both of them have been seemingly able to avoid the negative connotations of being a TV adaptation by pulling from a foreign source.
I can’t say I’ve seen the original, but the plots seem to be largely the same. After a botched robbery which sees four robbers die at the hands of the cops, the wife of their leader, Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) is threatened by the man her husband stole from, Jamal Manning (Atlanta‘s Brian Tyree Henry). Manning is a criminal seeking to go legit, running as an alderman against Colin Farrell’s Jack Mulligan. The $2 million that was stolen from him was hugely important in what was already a race stacked against him as Mulligan would be a third generation alderman (taking over for his father played by a hammy Robert Duvall) and is dealing with a short election cycle and significant deficit. The film does a surprisingly good job with Farrell’s character balancing his casual racism, corruption, and nepotism with being a person who seems to want out and recognizing the need for change (though not necessarily believing it can happen). He’s a layered deeply flawed character even if the film fails to give him (or numerous others) a proper resolution.
With only a month to collect the money and little in the way of assets, Veronica is forced to seek an alternative means to obtain it. This alternative mean presents itself in the form of her husband’s book of heists and planned heists. She takes the $5 million planned next heist for one first final heist and recruits the widows of her husband’s former associates (Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki) who have similarly been left out in the cold by the deaths of their asshole husbands. Unlike say Ocean’s 8, the other female led heist film from this year, they obviously aren’t chosen for their skill and lack any actual skills besides Debicki’s embarrassingly and contrivedly written call girl relationship with Lukas Haas.
It’s a sprawling plot that takes on a lot of issues which is perhaps the film’s biggest challenge as it takes on various political, social, and feminist issues through its various storylines. The political plot is one that starts well and promises to tie in well with the main story, but it just kind of peters out after some great scenes with Henry (who winds up especially ill-served), Daniel Kaluuya (playing Henry’s enforcer brother), and Farrell. The social issues the film generally forgets about, while the feminist issues the film just kind of fumbles not exactly sure where to head with them. It tries to focus more on the upcoming heist but lacking the skilled operators of a traditional heist film or the sense of humor that say the Flynn influenced A Simple Favor had, it can’t maintain either the level of intrigue or fun that those films do, nor does it adequately seem to handle the suspense gifted to it by the premise of having a team of inexperienced robbers. Limiting the team to only three widows feels like a huge missed opportunity in cast dynamics and in giving them things to do.
It’s very thinly spread, a fact reflected most vividly in the cast. It’s almost embarrassingly deep and yet almost Terrence Malick-like in the way so many seem to be underused. Even beyond those mentioned there’s Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale), Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom and Silver Linings Playbook), Carrie Coon, Garret Dillahunt, Jon Bernthal, Matt Walsh, and Adepero Oduye (Pariah). Weaver is in full ACTING mode and felt like she was trying out for a less entertaining version of Jane the Virgin, Coon’s role feels like it mostly got left on the cutting room floor, and I’m not even sure why they bother to cast Bernthal for an almost nothing of a role. Dillahunt though has such a way of bringing such life to his small supporting roles, here being no exception.
I could spoiler my biggest complaint with the film, a moment that was so obvious and absolutely pathetic on the part of the film, but I don’t want to start a trend of doing that here (that way madness lies). Despite all my complaints, there is plenty to like with the film. The trio of performances at the center from Davis, Rodriguez, and Debicki are all strong. Davis is always such a powerful and commanding actor it’s wonderful getting to see her work with such an emotional range. It’s also great to see Rodriguez in a proper acting role considering the very specific roles she’s been stuck in post Girlfight. In addition, for any of the faults I’ve had with McQueen’s narrative or thematic choices (here’s looking at you Shame), he and Sean Bobbitt sure know how to shoot a film and there’s some great shots here including an extended car ride that while visually jarring and perhaps out of place from the rest of the film, was thematically interesting enough for it to not matter to me.
If you are looking for a heist film or anything stylish and exciting, it’s very easy to recommend that you check something else out. To be fair, I liked it and I’m not sure who I’d recommend it to, but those who do should go in expecting something far slower and be willing to accept certain contrivances.