Steve McQueen’s follow-up to 12 Years a Slave is a welcome treat even if it stumbles where it should most soar.
We have a lot of work to do. Crying isn’t on the list.
Widows is the type of film that studios don’t seem interested in making anymore. It’s a heist film for adults. Usually, we only get one of those if it’s also got enough dreamscape world-bending (Inception) or CGI supercar ballet (The Fast and the Furious) to please the kids and fanboys. We have yet to get another Heat. But when the person trying to make said film is Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen and half of Hollywood is apparently clamoring to be in the picture, it seems like the studios are willing to take a chance. Praise be to McQueen, who could have made any film he wanted as the follow-up to Best Picture 12 Years a Slave and chose Widows instead of a 4th iteration of the Spider-Man franchise.
The film’s opening sequence is a marvel of masterful editing by Joe Walker (Arrival, Sicario) as it smash cuts between quiet, domestic scenes of men with their wives and those men as a group of criminals dealing with the getaway from a job where everything has gone wrong. Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis) and her husband Henry (Liam Neeson) are seen cuddling in bed and showering. Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki) is seen nursing a black eye over breakfast while her abusive husband (Jon Bernthal) laments that seeing it makes him feel bad. Carlos Perelli (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) asks his wife Lena (Michelle Rodriguez) for money from her clothing store’s till to get him through the week. Jimmy Nunn (Coburn Goss) can’t even be bothered to eat the breakfast his wife Amanda (Carrie Coon) cooked as he dashes out the door. The “home” elements may not always be domestic bliss, but they certainly denote comfortable routine for these families. The Rawlins sequences are especially of note, contrasting the soft light and linen of a morning in bed with the hectic, dark brutality of the midnight mission. By the end of the sequence all four women are widows as their husbands and their financial security go up in a ball of fire during a police shootout.
Their husbands’ deaths are not an ending for these respective widows, however. It is the beginning. Veronica is soon visited by a Jamal Manning, a local criminal with political ambitions (Brian Tyree Henry), who informs her that Harry’s final job was stealing $2 million from his campaign headquarters, and he intends to have Veronica repay the debt or face his violent brother (Daniel Kaluuya). He needs the money to win a Chicago Ward Alderman race with Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the latest son of a family dynasty attempting to hold the seat. And that’s just part of a plot with dozens of interconnected strings. I didn’t even mention that Robert Duvall is in this film.
Faced with the need to repay Harry’s debt and having discovered Harry’s criminal journal with notes on past and future jobs, Veronica decides to enlist her fellow widows to pull off Harry’s last planned score and net them all enough money to pay off the debt to the Manning brothers and set them all up for comfortable lives without their husbands.
Anyone who loves Heat knows that it works as both a taut heist film and as a psychological profile of a con man and the officer pursuing him. The bank heist will have your blood pumping, but it’s De Niro and Pacino’s quiet diner chats that are the bedrock of that film. That’s the film McQueen desperately seems to want to make. He wants to bait the audience with the caper and the guns and then examine feminism and power dynamics once he has the lure set. There’s a reason you hire a titanic actress like Viola Davis and its’s not because you think she looks cool holding a Glock. Sure, Viola’s a badass, but McQueen could easily have cast Halle Berry or Kerri Washington if his focus was the action and a bigger box office draw.
How frustrating then that Widows never delves into its characters the way I hoped. Most heist films are built around the effortless cool of its characters being smarter than everyone else in the room. Widows has the opportunity to turn that formula on its head by focusing on a group of amateur women who have no idea how to pull off such a robbery. They aren’t trained, experienced, or smarter than their targets, but that doesn’t stop them from having to go through with the job nonetheless. It’s an interesting inversion of power dynamics, but it goes largely unfulfilled. Perhaps it’s the breadth of that incredible ensemble cast, but the film always feels spread too thin to let any of its characters carry the story. Only Davis and Debicki even get a shot at depth, and Widows ends up with broadly sketched archetypes instead of characters. Viola Davis’s Veronica is the stoic leader. Debicki’s Alice is the fragile, abused one who’s suddenly facing the real world after a lifetime of pampering. I don’t even have to tell you what the Lina role is like, just that Michelle Rodriguez is playing it, and you probably already have an impression of that character’s hard-nosed exterior attempting to hide her emotional pain.
And that’s really too bad. For a film that’s so smart in placing women front and center, it seriously undersells them in their casting and writing. Even if McQueen had wanted to cast his female stars to type, he and co-writer Gillian Flynn could have done them the favor of giving them some interesting wrinkles to twist the formula. Paradoxically, Widows largely gets the same process right with its male stars. Liam Neeson gets to play his usual late-career gun-toting role, but with a new sense of vulnerability and emotional underpinning – not the melodramatics and invincibility we’re accustomed to seeing from the star of Taken 3 and The Commuter (my screening of Widows featured a trailer for Neeson’s upcoming film Cold Pursuit, which is exactly more of such nonsense). Brian Tyree Henry gets to elevate his drug dealer/rapper character from Atlanta into a corrupt political kingpin. Colin Farrell gets to explore shifting hierarchies in a city that no longer resembles his own political dynasty. It’s a letdown that the female characterizations can be boiled down to Veronica’s full throated statement that “no-one thinks [they] have the balls to pull this off.”
None of that is to say that the cast is bad. Viola Davis is probably getting another Oscar nomination for her work here, and Elizabeth Debicki may well join her. The cast is an embarrassment of riches when you have the likes of Jon Bernthal and Jacki Weaver doing the one- or two-scene work that would usually go to small character actors. Everyone here is game, but it’s the script that lets them down. You would think Gillian Flynn, known for her complex female characters in the novels Sharp Objects and Gone Girl, could put a more interesting spin on this formula. Carrie Coon and ¾ EGOT winner Cynthia Erivo are both criminally underused with the former disappearing for the film’s middle hour and the latter only showing up for the last. Both characters have the type of role that seems to rebel against the character pigeon-holing I’m lamenting, but the film chooses to sideline them.
Widows is a good film. Its technical craft is unimpeachable with editing and camera work of particular note, especially a scene where the camera remains outside Jack Mulligan’s campaign vehicle as it drives from his campaign stop in the projects to his home and the viewer sees the socio-economic and demographic change that can come in just a five-minute drive across Chicago. The film’s final 45 minutes are a real treat as the plodding first half finally yields to the dynamic heist, and the film’s seemingly disparate plot points form a complex dramatic web. There are some payoffs that I really love. It’s not that I think Widows is bad as much as I think it’s a missed opportunity. We get so few adult films like this anymore, and I wanted a home run when I only got an impressive triple. It’s a good film, but with this cast, these writers, and this director, it should have been great. Unfortunately, Widows just can’t bring the Heat.