Overborne and overdetermined, Widows is a movie that never does anything terribly, and several things well enough, and maybe even a few things great. But it is a tremendously mixed bag..
Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen (based on the TV series by Lynda La Plante)
With Viola Davis (Veronica Rawlings), Elizabeth Debicki (Alice Gunner), Michelle Rodriguez (Linda Perelli), Cynthia Erivo (Belle), Carrie Coon (Amanda Nunn), Colin Farrell (Jack Mulligan), Bryan Tyree Henry (Jamal Manning), Daniel Kaluyya (Jatemme Manning), and Liam Neeson (Harry Rawlings)
Spoiler alert: close enough to high to count
To the extent you can say it about anybody whose career is only four features long, Steve McQueen is a great director: Hunger is pretty great; 12 Years a Slave is a masterpiece; and, while I dislike it, I can understand how someone might look at Shame, long-take piss scene and all, and decide that it was great, too. So, since Widows was made by a great director (and, perhaps, a great screenwriter, or at least a screenwriter with one masterpiece to her name, as well), and since Widows acknowledges the Issues of the Day in ways that are remotely exciting (and it acknowledges practically every last one of them in its sprawl, and most of the ways it does so are exciting), it follows that it must be great, too, which is how we get to where we are with Widows' critical reception, which is mostly "IT'S AMAZING," because nobody is measured about fucking anything anymore. Well, Widows is good. Sometimes Widows actually is great: you know within seconds of the film starting, thanks to a shocking edit and bled-together pair of sound cues that take it across the entire emotional range, from the subdued and romantic to the lethally chaotic, that at least its craft is that of a great craftsman. Sometimes, however, Widows is bad. More often, it's just kludged and clumsy, vastly more plot-mechanical (dysfunctionally so) than it ever wants to let on with its abrasive, gritty-realist mood. Mostly, it has a real tendency to put a hat upon its hat, without realizing it forgot to ever put on pants.
Widows is the first time McQueen's put a toe in what is called, derisively, "genre"—working from a screenplay he developed with Gillian Flynn, who is pretty much all genre, all the time—and theoretically it's his first "commercial" movie, which blurs some lines, inasmuch as 12 Years is definitely going to remain his highest-grossing film for a while. Either way, it was based on the 1983 ITV miniseries of the same name, which McQueen fell in love with as a child (and, wow, can you ever tell that this had a longer-form antecedent). It moves the TV show's action from 1980s London to present-day Chicago—a city that has increasingly drawn filmmakers seeking to present their own personal indictments of America—and thus we have Widows, which takes on the form of a heist movie, but is firstly a sociological examination (of gender), secondly a sociological examination (of race), thirdly a sociological examination (of class), fourthly a study of four characters (by which I mean two), and then is a heist movie, when it finds the time. It finds more time to be a heist movie than to be a study of two-to-four characters, actually, and this makes some sense, yet it presumably shouldn't take a greater filmmaker than Steve McQueen to have realized that this movie's priorities are in the wrong order. Oh, right, sixthly, it's a corrupt political procedural.
So the heist we're concerned with is explained more-or-less just in that one-word title: as we blast from the film's first shot of what looks like marital bliss into the middle of a robbery gone awry, we find a gang of four men led by the apparently-legendary criminal Harry Rawlings; and, by the end of this first scene, cross-cut across space, time, and the last normal day of our actual principals, the money will be burned to ashes, the men will all be dead, and they'll have left behind four women. Three of them are important: Alice Gunner, the one whose husband left her with a black eye and destitute; Linda Perelli, who was left with a pair of kids and destitute; and, especially, Veronica Rawlings, who was left with a terrier and maybe not as destitute, but in the worst predicament of everybody anyway, for it turns out that Harry was stealing from a local mobster, Jamal Manning, who has recently decided to promote himself to a life of more genteel crime by running for alderman of the 18th ward of Chicago. Jamal needs that two million dollars for his campaign, and asks Veronica, not very nicely at all, to get it; and whenever Veronica needs a reminder of her husband's debt, Jamal sends his even less-nice brother Jatemme to refresh her memory, mostly by savaging whoever was the last person unfortunate enough to have had a conversation with her.
Now, Veronica does not have two million dollars, but she does have something of Harry's that might be worth even more: a notebook containing the details of his next heist, and while everybody is polite enough not to mention that his last heist was apparently spectacularly poorly-planned, this will have to do, and Veronica recruits—more like conscripts—Alice and Linda into what becomes her heist. She has the scheme; now all she needs is the street address, the person they're going to rob, and the reason why Harry had set out to first rob one of the candidates for alderman, then rob his opponent, political scion Jack Mulligan.
Indeed, by the end of the movie, this will still not be entirely clear.
It seems mostly straightforward, though it isn't, and probably the most noticeably-wrong thing Widows ever does is decide that it needs a big honking twist, a really huge, script-flipping twist, which the film has set up in ways that would probably be incredibly obvious if McQueen's rigorous, clinical direction and the screenplay's apparent focus on the psychic wounds of these women did not trick you into believing that this simply wasn't that kind of heist movie. Twists being Flynn's thing, I could "blame" her, but, in fact, I blame both, because the uneasy compromise between twisty preposterous thriller and brutal, borderline-nihilistic crime drama is pretty transparently the seed of many of the film's problems, and the nature of this twist is never so successful at reorienting the film's goals and strategies as the twist in Flynn's magnificent Gone Girl, which it superficially resembles so much I kind of feel like I'm spoiling it to say that out loud.
But maybe you'll notice that this movie has one superfluous widow, played by a recognizable character actor, whom the screenplay doesn't initially seem to give a shit about; the secondary twist here is that McQueen and Flynn actually don't. As this is still technically a movie about a quartet of unlikely robbers, it adds Linda's babysitter Belle to the mix as the driver/Winston Zeddemore of the group. It does so in a boilerplate dialogue scene that features such imaginative lines as "Do you vouch for her?", and unnecessarily-aggressive rejoinders like "You need to watch how you talk to me," when you have to agree that it's not an unfair question, though, in fairness to Belle, not a relevant one either, given that I doubt Linda brought her to the Honeycomb Hideout just to get her résumé on file. McQueen and Flynn give marginally more of a shit about Belle.
And that is the real problem with Widows: it pretends to give a shit about its huge ensemble, and it pretends just successfully enough to give you the vague impression that, at some point in this film's development, it actually did have some measure of scope and depth for all of them, rather than gestures toward scope and depth for most of them. McQueen clearly expended enormous effort to assemble that cast. There's a solid argument that Widows has 2018's best cast, as well as its most diverse—oh, biologically, sure, but I mean in terms of range of type, from half-dead stalwarts like Robert Duvall, to aging-out leading men like Liam Neeson, to semi-faded superstars like Colin Farrell, to rising, potential superstars like Daniel Kaluyya and Elizabeth Debicki, to genre actors rarely given prestige opportunities like Michelle Rodriguez, to the woman whose whole career has prepared her to snarl out a trailer line like "They don't think we have the balls to pull this off," emphasis absolutely hers, Viola Davis. Apparently Harry's partners-in-crime are famous too. Must be TV famous. I thought they were extras.
And, as the movie goes on, they largely drop out of McQueen's and Flynn's consideration, some meaningfully, most not. This movie absolutely fumbles that ensemble, and runs out of material for the majority of them: Kaluyya's terrifying Jatemme is after the inheritance of Anton Chigurh, and he gets halfway there before the movie disposes of him like he's nothing; Farrel's younger Mulligan and his race for alderman is unconscionable dead air; Duvall's elder Mulligan is present solely to be racist and get shot; they stop caring about Rodriguez's Linda after her deeply weird makeout scene with a widower she just met; and Cynthia Erivo's Belle vanishes into the air, never to be seen directly again, when Davis needs to have a climactic scene with someone else.
Ultimately what we get is even more of a Davis-and-Debicki Show than we already had, and it's never exactly been unclear that their characters, Veronica and Alice, have always been the central points of Widows' interest. In Veronica's case this is natural; she drives the plot. As for Alice, it's because she has the most empowering yet the most prurient arc, as she struggles in the absence of her dead abusive husband, cowers still before her abusive mother, and who—at her mother's suggestion—becomes an escort to keep a roof over her head. And perhaps it is also because McQueen wanted to see Debicki's breasts. Gosh, I understand the impulse, but it's hard to think of a less appropriate venue than the feminist crime movie about how dreadfully hard it is for women to survive in an environment dominated by men, and how they manage it anyway and at the same fierce level. Better when he's fascinated by how inordinately tall Debicki is (it's something her directors have usually shot around), routinely fucking up his compositions in order to subliminally showcase that there are many different ways to be a woman. At least that works for the film.
Especially since that's the main thing the movie's about, though it's more like "many different ways to wind up in the same place." It's the kind of movie where the nicest man is mentally handicapped, the most useful man is Alice's rational transactionalist john, and no woman, apparently, knows how to run her own finances. (Super-empowering!) It's about much else, too, to the point where it feels overloaded with portent, especially when that portent, like Alice's john, winds up being suspiciously-convenient plot scaffolding, too. Hell, what is Veronica's marriage, but scaffolding? When Veronica, the teacher's union representative, is asked how she came to be with Harry, the professional robber, and she ignores the question, it feels less like someone guarding their privacy and more like McQueen and Flynn just don't know. It's been suggested that this is somehow an allegory for Chicago politics. That makes me like it less than when it was just a high-concept.
Well, when Widows has something to say, it's rarely this subtle: when the younger Mulligan is introduced to Jatemme and replies, "I love you, too," that is subtle, and I get it; when it's the instantly-famed long-take from the hood of Mulligan's car that establishes the racial divisions of Chicago, that's not subtle, but it's good; when it's Mulligan spending his car ride yammering to his white female assistant about big black cocks, I think I preferred the scenery. It takes on America's murderers in blue, too—I'm tempted to say "of course it does"—and I'm half of the opinion this is a great scene, and half that it exploits all their black victims as just one more tragedy on the pile. Well, it's in a flashback; when you see a black teenager driving very very slightly recklessly past a fence plastered with Obama posters framed for maximum irony, you know this can only end the one way. Man, maybe sometimes McQueen shouldn't be such a rigorous filmmaker.
What Widows wants to be most, however, and what fights through everything else for attention, is a drama about Veronica Rawlings and her grief and her determination, and, even when it's weighed down, it kind of can't help but work. Davis is genuinely excellent—maybe her most emotionally significant relationship now is with her terrier, but I mean that as a compliment—and McQueen in turn privileges Davis with all his best choices: that first edit; the cliche-but-effective staging of the gunshot that culminates her character's journey; and my favorite, despite or because of its smallness, the framing of a shot in a mirror nook that puts the camera next to a wall and turns it into a big, fuzzy white fog of emptiness that dominates half the screen while she rage-cries at her dead husband, a splendid visual metaphor that, yes, the screenplay eventually fucks up when it decides that it's going to be "about" the way Veronica has blinded herself with nostalgia for her marriage, even though this tends to muddy everybody's motivations, not to mention make the movie even icier than Chicago itself.
Meanwhile, making sense is not always Widows' guiding light, either—or am I the one that doesn't know what the hell's going on in Chicago, and a candidate for local office paying his respects at a famed supercriminal's funeral is normal?
Having such jumbled priorities, it skimps a lot more than one would like on its traditional genre pleasures, but McQueen knows how to put together a scene, and the scenes that do focus on the heist are crackerjack—especially a tiny little human mistake that almost costs them everything, and even earns a nice, good laugh.
The objective was, presumably, to make a social issues drama fun. In this it isn't a failure, though being the "most fun" Steve McQueen movie is apparently something no Steve McQueen movie ought to aspire to be in the first place, and being a social issues drama (I almost wrote "diorama," which is even more accurate), a character drama, and a heist film was always too much for these poor 129 minutes to bear. In this world of overlong films, now we get one that could only have benefited from being longer; perhaps such a cut exists, and I'd love to see it, though I expect Widows is exactly the movie McQueen wanted. That's his whole deal. If it only ever feels like what would happen if you cut Heat down to 129 minutes, I guess that's not really an accident. Yet it's the least-precise movie McQueen's ever made, and this seems as likely, in retrospect, as any second masterpiece: his previous three movies, after all, are effectively first-person accounts of their protagonists' travails, designed for McQueen to not need to care about anything outside their ambit. I think that's more-or-less what he wound up making here, too, but this genre, of all genres, could not possibly have let him do that unscathed. Having seen it, I don't even know why I ever was thrilled by the idea of a McQueen heist film. But I was, and despite never being bored by it, investing in the mechanics, and liking or really-liking most every performance, it's an AMAZING disappointment.