Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring Viola Davis, Colin Farrell, Liam Neeson
Widows is Ocean’s 8 with a social conscience. After all, its director is Steve McQueen—the helmer responsible for punishing films like Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave. It’s also fair to say Widows is more entertaining than those films. But in trying to be more, it also ends up becoming disappointingly less.
Based on the trailers alone, the premise is easy to grasp. Viola Davis plays Veronica Rawlings, a Chicago teachers’ union executive who is married to Harry (Liam Neeson), a career criminal who has built up a gang staging successful heists. (That the film doesn’t establish a cover occupation for Harry and that his criminal enterprise is treated as an open secret within the film’s political milieu is a tad problematic.) The film opens with the gang’s final caper, which goes spectacularly wrong, and in the middle of mourning the fiery demise of her husband, Veronica gets a visit from a crime boss named Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). It seems the money that dearly departed Harry and his gang stole came out of Jamal’s coffers, and Veronica has to pay it back. When she discovers among Harry’s papers a plan for another heist, Veronica recruits the widows of Harry’s gang to help realize it.
That summary alone is enough meat for a two-hour movie, with the requisite twists, double-crosses, and some pointed commentary about female empowerment thrown in (which we would certainly expect from a writer like Gillian Flynn, the Gone Girl author who co-wrote the screenplay). But Widows also features a sprawling subplot involving Jamal, who happens to be running for alderman against the scion (Colin Farrell) of the political family who has been lording it over his ward. With a cast that includes not just the widows but also illustrious supporting players like Daniel Kaluuya (as a scarily zealous henchman) and Robert Duvall (as Farrell’s cantankerous father), the script will need to service their characters too. On top of that, Widows makes acute observations on race relations, class divisions, gerrymandering and corruption—suddenly, what was meaty enough for a two-hour narrative has enough material for an eight-episode Netflix series.
Widows is at its best when it refrains from belaboring its points (there is a bravura sequence where McQueen foists his camera on the hood of Farrell’s car as he unloads on his aide about the drudgery of being on the campaign trail, and in one uninterrupted shot we see Chicago’s neighborhoods unfurl from rundown tenements to tony townhouses), and when it focuses on its titular characters. Davis anchors the proceedings—her Veronica totes her little dog everywhere, as if How to Get Away With Murder’s Annalise Keating had been partially possessed by The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy—and allows the rest of her crew to fly. Michelle Rodriguez gets to display some vulnerability, while Elizabeth Debicki steals the show as a blonde beanstalk of a trophy wife who, ironically, finds her inner badass as she teeters on the edge of becoming a call girl. But in a top-flight cast with 14 speaking parts, Widows often buries the characters who matter under commentary; it’s an elevated heist thriller that could’ve been a little less woke.
Photographs courtesy of 20th Century Fox