June 2024

Widows (2018)

DIRECTOR: Steve McQueen

CAST: Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya, Brian Tyree Henry, Liam Neeson, Robert Duvall


Widows could be considered a heist movie, but it’s not a testosterone-fueled action flick, and it’s even further away from a lighthearted lark in the vein of something like Ocean’s ElevenJust a cursory glance at the filmography of director and co-writer Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave) shows he’s a filmmaker of more serious intentions, and thematic subtext related to female empowerment, corruption in politics, race relations, and social injustice make Widows about more than “just” a heist movie.  One could argue McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) bite off more than they can chew—the narrative is prone to spending too much time on side tangents and could have benefited from a leaner, tighter edit—but there’s enough here to make Widows an engaging, if imperfect, slow burn crime drama/thriller achieving a little uniqueness by boasting an all-female lead cast.

We kick off with a cold open of veteran thief Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew pulling off another job, but the fact that things don’t go so well this time shouldn’t be much of a spoiler considering that, after all, the name of the movie is Widows.  The central focus is not the men, but the women they leave behind, principally Harry’s wife Veronica (Viola Davis) and two fellow widows, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki).  All three find themselves in dire financial straits but for Veronica, the situation is even more precarious when she learns Harry’s last score stole millions from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a local gangster-turned-aspiring politician locked in a political campaign against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the son of a bigwig politico (Robert Duvall).  The money burned up with her husband, but Jamal gives her a month to find a way to pay him back, a threat his vicious brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) would be only too eager to enforce.  But finding the notebook her husband left behind, in which he meticulously documented everything, including his planned next heist, gives the desperate Veronica an idea.  Backed into a corner, she sets out to enlist her fellow widows—and eventually Linda’s babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo) into forming a crew of their own and pulling off the job themselves.

Widows‘ concept of an all-female heist crew might fleetingly recall the recent Ocean’s Eight, but the tone here is darker and far more serious.  Widows is gritty and somber and moves at a slow burn pace.  Violence comes in short brutal bursts, few and far between.  The actual heist itself is simple and straightforward and doesn’t take much screentime.  The movie takes the time to develop each individual widow.  Linda loses her boutique shop and is on the verge of losing her house with small children to support, while Alice dabbles in high-end prostitution.  The movie wears its social commentary on its sleeve, with moments ripped straight from the headlines (especially an unjustified police shooting).  Much time—too much, in fact—is also spent on the Manning vs. Mulligan political campaigning and maneuvering, and one suspects the Mulligan family’s passing resemblance to the Trumps may not be entirely coincidental (the Mulligans boast of boosting black employment while throwing around racial slurs in private, and Robert Duvall’s abrasive elder Mulligan subjects his son to scathing tongue-lashings).

Widows’ biggest flaw is a sometimes meandering narrative that wanders down or at least overindulges too many tangents.  The biggest offender is the hefty subplot of Colin Farrell’s smarmy politician Jack Mulligan; while he eventually serves a plot purpose or two, too much screentime is spent on him for what fairly little he actually contributes to the main storyline.  Other elements, like Alice’s interlude with a wealthy man who pays for her company (Lukas Haas), could have been trimmed down (like Mulligan, he serves a minor plot purpose, but more time is spent on him than needed to be), and other bits, like an awkward encounter between Linda and a recently widowed man, could have been left out altogether.  Worse still, the ending seems to leave a few loose ends, only lending further credence to the filmmakers whipping up more supporting characters and side plots than they knew what to do with.  The strongest element is the dynamic of the four women forming a fledgling team of amateur thieves, and the sense of empowerment each gains from it (there’s a little low-key humor as Alice attends an auction looking for a suitable getaway van, and gets help obtaining a gun by posing as a foreign mail order bride with an abusive husband to a sympathetic bystander).

The acting is solid across the board.  Leading the way and commanding the screen is the ever-reliable Viola Davis, who employs her stern demeanor to imbue Veronica with an iron-willed stoicism through which cracks of restrained grief occasionally slip through.  Davis’ forceful presence makes Veronica the most arresting character onscreen, and we’re engaged by her fearsome determination in the midst of the dire circumstances in which she finds herself.  Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Cynthia Erivo (recently a standout in Bad Times at the El Royale) provide a capable supporting crew.  Colin Farrell oozes oily charm as a prototypical slick-talking, insincere politician.  Daniel Kaluuya provides an ominous henchman as the casually vicious Jatemme.  Liam Neeson doesn’t have a lot of screentime, but gets to play against his recent action hero image with a character who’s more morally questionable.  Actually, the more we find out about Harry as the plot unspools, the less savory he looks.  This is the closest Neeson has come to playing an outright villain since 2005’s Batman Begins.  Alas, Robert Duvall is one character too many.  He only has a handful of scenes and feels even more superfluous than his son.  Smaller roles include Garret Dillahunt, Lukas Haas, Kevin J. O’Connor, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, and Jon Bernthal.

Widows could have stood to be trimmed down and tightened up, but Steve McQueen has not abandoned his interest in pushing serious, socially conscious themes even from the more conventional narrative framework of a heist thriller.  That, and a solid cast, makes Widows engaging enough to be worth checking out for those seeking a female-led heist flick with more substance and seriousness than Ocean’s Eight.

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