Image Credit to Complex
Steve McQueen’s Widows begins by crosscutting a heist with snippets of the thieves interacting with their wives. It’s hard to figure out which of the opening’s two halves is worse. McQueen (director of 12 Years a Slave and Shame) mostly shoots the heist from inside the getaway van. With a steady, deep-focus shot, he captures how the crime team’s members try to slow down or evade the cops chasing and shooting at them by throwing objects in the police’s way. Unfortunately, McQueen’s camera is so distant that the scene feels physically weightless and emotionally lackluster; the broken objects, explosions, crashed and flipped cars seem flimsy. It’s hard to get a sense that the heist team’s participants are risking limbs, bones, organs, and bodies during this confrontation.
Equally as unbelievable is the depiction of how these men communicate with their wives. These moments are, for the most part, shot more intimately than the chase; however, no intimacy is created by the film’s script. McQueen and co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn (author of Gone Girl) craft preposterous scenes that seem intended as shortcuts to sum up who the film’s characters are or appear to be. For instance, one would expect a loving, but concerned wife to express her reservations about her husband’s immoral lifestyle in private, not by screaming at him in front of their children near the entrance of the family store. However, doing so allows the script to quickly communicate that this couple has children who the parents want to support through ethical (selling material from the store) and unethical (the dad committing robberies) means while worrying about the possible consequences these wrong choices will have on their kids.
Sadly, this introduction is a microcosm of Widows. The picture attempts to balance the elements of the heist thriller with the elements of a more weighty drama, ultimately shortchanging both and creating a mess in which nearly every scene feels unemotional and untruthful.
Widows’ main heist narrative starts as its introduction ends. The men conducting the heist are killed by the cops. Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a Chicago crime boss running for the South Side precinct’s alderman, finds out that the thieves snatched his money, two million dollars which burned to ashes during the shootout. Desperate to get his cash back, Manning delivers an ultimatum to Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis), wife of lead robber Henry Rawlings (Liam Neeson): pay the dough back in a month or else. Veronica, who daydreams about Henry’s touch and kiss, his smile at her same joke during their morning routine, isn’t emotionally or financially sound enough to deal with paying this debt off. However, with no other choice, she concocts a plan. Armed with her husband’s notebook detailing his next job, Veronica contacts the other fallen bandits’ wives, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and Amanda (Carrie Coon), and tries to convince them to pull off a heist with her.
The core pleasure of a good heist movie is seeing the process behind the crime. Marveling at the organization, meticulousness, smoothness, and improvisation needed to execute the perfect theft is why this genre has such a hold on imaginations. It’s difficult to remember that while watching Widows. McQueen has little interest in examining how and why these widows come together, what plan they make to rob millions, what steps they take to ensure the plan’s success, and how they push their minds and bodies to overcome what obstacles come their way when the plan goes to shit. It’s not that McQueen doesn’t have scenes dealing with such events; it’s that these incidents are handled perfunctorily: he seems to have done them to fulfill an obligation not to feed his passion for heist cinema.
Take, for example, how he explores the inexperience of the widows as pilferers. McQueen spends time on how Linda and Alice can’t easily purchase a getaway car or find the location where the soon-to-be-stolen money is hidden. However, he doesn’t orchestrate scenes in which they and Veronica struggle to map out the heist, arguing over what different tactics they can use to stake out the targeted house, to break in, to distract security, and to deal with whatever unforeseen chaos might arise. These details, these possible conflicts, these methods of showing the group diverging before coming together are ignored by McQueen; as a result, the exhilaration and satisfaction tied to watching how the job is planned and executed in any good heist movie leave Widows.
Widows’ apologists tend to concede the work’s shortcomings as a heist flick; instead, arguing that it contains virtues as a drama examining important sociological themes, such as Chicago’s political corruption. While these fans are welcome to their opinion, it’s difficult to be persuaded by this argument. Aside from the fact that a dull depiction of stealth should not be excused because a heist film deigns to have other ambitions, Widows deserves to be lampooned for how poor, rushed, and uninteresting its thematic examination is.
The work’s biggest failure here is its look at how craven and exploitative local Chicago politics are. McQueen and Flynn create a political backdrop by connecting the stolen money to the aforementioned Manning. While Manning’s interest in politics is to create a legitimate façade to distract from his crime and violence, his opponent, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) is equally, perhaps even more, detestable. The son of a famous neighborhood politician (Robert Duvall), Mulligan has deep-seated racism, uses his connections to offer housing contracts to rich friends who-in turn-fatten his pockets, and only helps his economically struggling mostly black constituents if they are willing to kickback a chunk of their income. Widows spends a lot of time on the Manning vs. Mulligan subplot even as it distracts from the thinly sketched heist story because the election makes for an illustration of how many communities in Chicago and the US regularly face unfair choices between two atrocious and venal leadership candidates.
However, the picture Widows paints of this calamity is muddied by the script. Instead of evoking rage at the day-to-day pain of Chicago’s citizens, McQueen and Flynn deliver the spectacle of Manning and Mulligan raging at each other; insights about the machinations that foster corruption are traded away for constant exposition about polling. Much like the heist elements, the tension and drama of politics feel intangible and distant. For example, early on, Mulligan meets Manning to offer him a chance at withdrawing. One would expect them to at least attempt to make pleasant conversation as a means of upholding their falsely charming personas before succumbing to their baser antagonistic impulses. However, they immediately start insulting and ridiculing each other in a way that feels unnatural for who their characters are supposed to be; as a result, it’s hard to become emotionally invested in their showdown.
Similarly, whenever Widows needs to gin up interest in this election story, it stages scenes in which characters inform each candidate about how they’re doing in the polls. It’s not unreasonable to assume that political campaigns obsess over this data, but does every conversation an electoral candidate has begin with someone telling them “you’re X points up in the polls” or “polls show you’ve cut the lead to Y”? Not only is such expository dialogue unrealistic, it makes the film bloated and confusing. So much attention is paid to polling, so many numbers are discussed, that it’s easy to feel like the drama in Widows is about who wins this race even though the tragedy is supposed to be that, regardless of victor, voters are fucked. Look at any scene dealing with social issues in Widows, whether it concerns the financial predicaments of the wives or an underexplored flashback involving Veronica losing a son to a police shooting, and it functions like the sequences concerning Chicago’s political corruption: important on the surface, but empty underneath.
With Widows whiffing as a heist thriller and a heavy drama, the question becomes if there’s anything redeeming about it. And the answer is: certain performances. Viola Davis is very convincing as a woman overcome with grief who can turn on a steely demeanor when she needs to for the heist. Cynthia Erivo, who nearly stole the show in the dull Bad Times at the El Royale, nearly does so here again with an amazing physical performance that one hopes the producers of Mission Impossible notice. Meanwhile, Daniel Kaluuya and Molly Kunz turn in scary and funny performances as a mob enforcer and political aide, respectively. Sadly, the passion of these actors and actresses is unmatched by the rest of the film. Widows goes through the motions when it comes to delivering a good heist movie while, inexplicably, being even lazier when it comes to functioning as a good weighty drama. It’s the year’s biggest misfire.