Like Colin Farrell’s accent, Widows is unsure of what it wants to be.
Writer/Director Steve McQueen and Co-Writer Gillian Flynn’s new film is certainly a complicated one to categorize. The synopsis sounds simple: Three women, widowed after their husbands die carrying out a heist, must take matters into their own hands to pay back their husbands’ debts. But, with a sprawling narrative and two handfuls of characters, categorization is anything but easy. Is it a heist film, a character-driven drama about loss and finding new purpose, or a political thriller about small-time politics and corruption? In a way, it is all of these and none of them at the same time.
First, what works:
The heist scenes are genuinely thrilling. The opening action scene superimposes frenetic shots with some peaceful moments between Viola Davis’s Veronica and Liam Neeson’s Harry, giving us an ebb and flow of adrenaline right out the gate. McQueen yanks the cords of momentum like a puppet-master, raising the pulse, lulling us into calm, shocking us once more with booming sound design as transition. The end of the film is also nicely bookended with a great payoff in the form of the ladies’ heist, drawing parallels to the men at the beginning, but with a few key differences.
The cast is phenomenal. This is truly a character-driven film that injects a surprising amount of depth into a (kind-of) genre movie, and the cast, particularly Viola Davis, an impressive Elizabeth Debicki, as well as the always-pitch-perfect Robert Duvall, take advantage of the script in these moments. McQueen uses these scenes to build dramatic backgrounds for each of his characters, elevating them to more than tropes or caricatures. He tackles topics of race relations, gender power dynamics, and the exploration of agency and self-empowerment. The scenes in particular developing the backstory between Neeson and Davis really resonate. This hefty characterization is one of the reasons the film defies easy categorization, but it is also one of its biggest faults.
Which brings me to what doesn’t work:
With a film focusing so much on character-driven drama, it becomes just that, a drama. There is nothing wrong with this, but a drama dressed up to look like a heist movie doesn’t follow the same rules as a straight-up heist movie, for better and worse. In the case of Widows, I found the pacing heavily dropped off after the initial punch of the opening scene. With so many characters, and each one given scenes of bloated development, the overarching ticking-clock narrative and the urgency behind it (Veronica has a month to pay the deceased Harry's debts or the bad guys come calling) suffers. With every character pouring their woes into the audience, I was left wondering what time there would be to watch the main heroines actually plan and, you know, execute their supposed robbery. Sadly, the grand ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ style scheming is largely absent here thanks to a handy plot device, thus allowing McQueen to continue stuffing in shots of Davis staring forlornly out windows, and boy, there are a ton of those. The film is such a slow burn, the flame nearly chokes out.
Another pace-killer is the political intrigue that shifts the focus onto Colin Farrell’s character Jack Madig- I mean Mulligan, of the Chicago Mulligan dynasty, and his quest to get out from under his father’s shadow while spearheading a rocky campaign against the more grassroots Jamal, played by Bryan Tyree Henry. While none of the aforementioned plot threads (difficult heist, each heroine’s individual realization of self-power, dirty political campaign) are bad on their own, together they overwhelm the viewer, and we feel we have spent too little time with each development as the film cuts from scene to scene. As a result, each plot thread is advanced in the smallest baby steps, because anything longer eats into the allotted time for the next mini-scene catering to the next plot thread.
Despite the ample character development in the film, it’s hard to overstate just how emotionally hollow the film is. Charged scenes are handled so clinically that it undermines the work of the cast, evoking feelings of…nothing. While this helps accent the misdeeds of the antagonists, it really stumbles in showing the vulnerability and turmoil of the heroines as they slowly take the reins back in their lives. One particular flashback involving Davis’s and Neeson’s son should rend audiences. Instead, it’s mildly tepid and detached. I attribute this to clean shot choices opting for distance from the characters along with severely introspective moments when the characters, mostly Davis, are alone (staring out windows), that don’t translate well to viewers.
The last gripe is Chicago, or lack of it. Chicago is a great city with a lot of architectural personality and a lot of history with crime, race, and dirty politics especially. It has a lot to offer a socially conscious film like this. I have to assume that it was with careful and deliberate choice that McQueen and Flynn chose Chicago as the setting to their sweeping crime film, yet the film evokes nothing of Chicago’s iconography. It doesn’t come through at all that Chicago is where this film is set. It may as well be Baltimore, Detroit, Cleveland. McQueen missed a real chance to have Chicago as one of the characters in the film.
Despite some large missteps, I have to applaud Widows for the risks it took; with the story, with the attempted mix of genres, with the characters and social messaging. More films need to do this, even if they miss the mark. For that reason, I think it’s an important film, if not a particularly memorable or exciting one.
Oh, and this being partly from the mind of Gillian Flynn, be prepared for the inevitable ill-conceived plot twist. If it's got her name on it, you know one's a-coming.