Steve McQueen’s new film, “Widows,” starts with a whiz-bang opening sequence, cutting between the home life of four thieves and the same thieves on the job. The jumps between the two are purposefully jarring, causing the audience to sit up and take notice.
It is all a lie. After the sequence finishes, the movie never regains that momentum. It instead delivers some poor storytelling techniques which tip its hand, weakening the twists the film offers. If that wasn’t bad enough, those twists are almost entirely irrelevant. They exist more to shock the audience than to further the story and if one has been paying attention to what the movie shows, and doesn’t show, they are none too surprising either.
With a script from McQueen and Gillian Flynn, the film is based on a U.K. television series by Lynda La Plante. Not having seen the original show it is impossible for this reviewer to guess whether the characters in it are fully three-dimensional. In the movie, however, with the exception of Viola Davis’s Veronica Rawlings, they are not.
Taking place in Chicago, Veronica opens the movie as the wife of gang leader, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson). Does she know that he runs a gang? Probably, although the movie never makes it certain. In either case, once a job goes wrong for the gang, Jamal and Jatemme Manning (Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya, respectively), come gunning for Veronica. They were the victims of Harry’s last job and need the money so Jamal can run against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) for Alderman. They are doing this not because they want to help the community as much as they want the opportunity for bigger and better rackets.
Then there’s their opponent, Jack, who is running to take over the seat of his father, Tom (Robert Duvall). Due to Tom’s stubbornness, the ward has been redistricted and it’s no longer safely in the Mulligan’s hands. Although there is no love lost between father and son, this redistricting upsets both men who are just as dirty as the typical screen Chicago politician.
The election story is told alongside the story of Veronica putting together two of the other three gang widows, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), so they can pull off a job Harry had been planning. The job will get Veronica square with the Mannings and provide for all the women.
This is the main thrust of the movie – these women trying to pull off a heist, learning what they have to do from the ground up. As the movie spends so much time, however, with the Mulligan/Manning story and attempting to prove its own cleverness, it doesn’t allow us inside as much as it might. Linda’s tale falls by the wayside in favor of showing Alice’s relationship with a rich man she meets on a “dating” site. And, to try to explain how a hairdresser, Belle (Cynthia Erivo), gets involved in the while enterprise would take too much time.
To say that “Widows” is overstuffed is a gross understatement. It is a movie bursting at the seams with character and story and, as happens, in its attempt to tell every story, it winds up telling nearly none of them. As great and powerful as Viola Davis is every single time she’s on screen, it feels as though important pieces of her character are missing. The steely confidence she exudes in front of her criminal co-conspirators is a false front, but as the movie progresses it rarely gives us enough insight into her true nature.
The storytelling finds itself so heavily directed towards end results that the audience is assured that anything that appears on screen is relevant towards the film’s end story goal. This is one of the reasons that the movie doesn’t succeed all that well – it can’t hide the twists and turns and reveals because it is trying to tell so many stories and fit in those “clever” moments that it has little time for anything not relevant towards the story. This is particularly shocking for a work that runs more than two hours and is so incredibly dull at points.
There is a great movie here about these women doing what no one, perhaps even themselves, thinks they can do and pull off this heist. It is a movie that is completely buried under the weight of everything else “Widows” tries to do. It is not, for example, particularly new or unique to suggest that Chicago politics is known for being dirty (at least historically), and it definitely notes the less than above board nature of the politics, but doesn’t further that discussion. It just puts it out there and does so in a way that it can’t spend more time on the heist.
“Widows” is a disappointing film and only as good as it is because Viola Davis delivers a wonderful performance. Without her, it would be laughable.
photo credit: Fox