After winning Best Picture and Best Director for 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen could have done just about anything he wanted to with his next project. Not only had he scaled the awards season mountain and earned the respect of his peers and potential employers, but he’d also done so with a film which also happened to gross nearly ten times its budget worldwide. So, inevitably, the calls came from all around the industry, and given the first blank check opportunity of his career, McQueen shocked everyone: he was going to make a heist movie! Not only that, it was going to be adapted from a somewhat forgotten 1983 ITV mini-series about newly widowed women pulling off a robbery to pay off their dead husbands’ debts while also working through their grief.
Thus, we have Widows. The very basic plot is the same. Sure, it has been transplanted from London to Chicago and instead of three white women (Ann Mitchell, Fiona Hendley, Maureen O’Farrell) and a woman from Barbados (Eva Mottley) it’s now two black women (Viola Davis, Cynthia Erivo), a Latina (Michelle Rodriguez), and a 6’2” white model (Elizabeth Debicki). Still, as with the original Widows in order to pay off a debt Davis uses her dead husband’s (Liam Neeson) ledger to plot a heist with her fellow widows. The men will never see them coming because, as Davis memorably growls in a trailer-ready line, “No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.”
But, this is Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn. They’re not just going to make a straightforward genre film. As a result, Widows is really a Wire-esque socioeconomic parable about the state of race, power, politics, gender, religion, and even police violence in Chicago hiding inside a heist movie. If you want to see a diverse group of women band together and outsmart the people they’re robbing, there’s already Ocean’s 8. However, if you’re up for a withering take on the rotten state of America, a land where the only hope left is for women of all colors to find their voice and take back power from men, then give Widows a chance.
Just be prepared for disappointment.
Because even after you let go of what you might have expected Widows to be, especially based on the rather effective trailer, you’re still left with something which is simply overstuffed with ideas and character.
Talking to Empire magazine, McQueen admitted his mantra through the editing process was: “When in doubt, go back to the women.” The problem is he doesn’t do that nearly enough. Instead, we spend an inordinate amount of time with Colin Farrell and Brian Tyree as rival politicians running to become alderman of a South Side precinct.
They’re both disgustingly corrupt, and McQueen digs deep into their dirty deals and evil with a capital E family members, Farrell son to a racist, power-hungry mini-Trump (Robert Duvall) and Tyree brother to a sociopathic fixer (a truly frightening Daniel Kaluuya). Farrell was also a friend to Davis’ dead husband while Tyree was actually robbed by him and wants his damn money back. So, they are each necessary to the story, more so than we first realize in fact, but they suck up screen time at the expense of the women, who, as a result, struggle to build up a believable camaraderie.
Plus, the story is just not as clean as it easily could or should be. There’s a fourth widow played by an underused Carrie Coon who declines to join the others. Erivo isn’t even a widow, instead a hairdresser by day, babysitter by night recruited by Rodriguez to be their driver, which means she doesn’t join the story until much later. Davis and Neeson have a character motivation-altering backstory which doesn’t reveal itself until far, far too late. The other widows are never actually threatened by anyone and are only going along with the heist because Davis is effectively blackmailing them since she can’t do it alone, a fact the film acknowledges but seems to forget about.
However, within all of that, there are stellar performances and moments of thrilling ingenuity. Debicki starts as a mess of a woman who has never provided for herself before and always received a slap to the face whenever she spoke up, either to her controlling mother (Jackie Weaver) or abusive husband (Jon Bernthal), but she ends as the most dynamic member of the group. McQueen’s inspired choice to film an opening car chase from a fixed position inside the back of the getaway van looking out on the chaos erupting on the roads reminds you of his immense talent. The same goes for the film’s already infamous long take with a camera mounted to Farrell’s car, chronicling how quickly you can drive from one section of Chicago to another and feel like you’ve switched countries.
THE BOTTOM LINE
With this cast, straightforward B-movie premise, and overqualified talent behind the screen, this should have been a slam dunk. Instead, it’s an elevated genre picture overflowing with ideas, too many of them, actually. Still, there are individual moments of genius and Debicki surprisingly steals the show from her bigger name co-stars.
What about you? What’s your take on Widows? Let me know in the comments.