Steve McQueen's "Widows" An Unsatisfying Heist Movie

Much has been made of director Steve McQueen (“12 Years A Slave”) going “commercial” with ensemble piece “Widows” – making a point to mix prestige with popcorn. But in a year that’s already seen a few artful thrillers make hay (Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here” and Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” rank among 2018’s best films), McQueen’s effort barely registers. Despite a reliably compelling lead performance from Oscar, Emmy, and Tony-winner Viola Davis, “Widows” is flat and tedious; a lukewarm soup of political commentary and domestic melodrama, merely garnished with heist movie clichés.

Whatever friction there was between McQueen and writer John Ridley on “12 Years A Slave” – and according to reports, there was a lot of friction – “Widows” could’ve used some of that same vitality. McQueen and Gone Girl author and screenwriter Gillian Flynn adapt from the 1980s ITV series of the same name, mining its sociopolitical themes and updating them for the twenty-first century.

The upshot is superficially thoughtful, all of the movie’s insight languishing on the surface. There’s little to be gained from parsing through impossibly cartoonish interludes (Daniel Kaluuya’s turn as a mob enforcer is great but silly) and ludicrous plot holes.

Davis headlines as Veronica Rawlings, a Chicago teachers’ union delegate and black woman who’s all but stripped of her social standing and wealth when her white, bank robber husband Harry (Liam Neeson) is killed during a heist gone wrong. Harry’s three partners also perish, leaving behind three more widows: Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), and Amanda (Carrie Coon). Alice, whose late husband (Jon Bernthal) abused her, turns to escorting to support herself. Linda and Amanda have it even tougher: they have children to feed.

Apart from flashes of Harry’s botched robbery, the film’s first hour and change is action-free – a significant hurdle for an action movie – instead, dawdling in Chicago political corruption. Bryan Tyree Henry and Colin Farrell play dueling, scheming Chicago politicians Jamal Manning and Jack Mulligan, each uniquely entwined in the business of the late Harry Rawlings. It’s Manning whose cash was burned up along with Harry and his team, and he comes after Veronica.

“You’re nothing now. Welcome back,” Manning growls at her, succinctly summing up the movie’s meditations on class and race.

Fortuitously, Veronica finds her late husband’s notebook, which contains detailed plans of a five million dollar job. She slowly, laboriously goes to work on Alice and Linda in hopes that they’ll help. Linda’s babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo) eventually joins them.

But the movie’s big setpiece is too little, much too late. The script’s well-intended ruminations on misogyny, police brutality, and systemic racism do little to assuage its lack of energy. Although Kaluuya’s intermittent appearances (characters dip in and out for the duration) function as cheat codes to spark the film to life, the scenes are not enough.

More than that, McQueen and Flynn’s writing is so caught up in its grand thematic ideas that its characters become delivery devices instead of convincing human beings. Alice as written is particularly shallow, lengthy conversations with her john (Lukas Haas) evincing a slack, disconnected screenplay that so badly wants to be everything to everyone that it ends up being nothing at all.

McQueen is probably incapable of making a bad film, but here he’s made a frustrating one – a movie crying out for a tighter edit, fewer moving parts, and the razor-sharp focus of “12 Years A Slave.” It’s hardly the pulse-pounding thriller suggested by its trailers.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: November 16, 2018
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Steve McQueen
Screenwriters: Steve McQueen, Gillian Flynn
Starring: Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Carrie Coon, Brian Tyree Henry, Jon Bernthal, Lukas Haas, Robert Duvall
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, language throughout, and some sexual content/nudity)