Steve McQueen's ambitious, female-driven crime film sports fabulous performances, but bounces haphazardly between tones.
The opening of Steve McQueen’s riveting new heist movie Widows is a masterclass in storytelling efficiency. Four moments of domesticity—some happy, some far more complicated—are intercut with a harrowing heist-gone-wrong shot from inside the back of the getaway van. In just a handful of images, McQueen effortlessly establishes four different relationships, four different women, and the high-stakes world of crime around which the film is set. (The next montage of funerals demonstrates just how wrong things can go.) McQueen does in moments what some heist movies need a whole act to pull off, and the elegant efficiency continues throughout the story of how the titular widows come together to pull off a plan—and pay off a debt—their dead husbands leave behind. If only the same could be said for the film’s bloated male-centric subplots.
Based on a 1980s British miniseries and co-written by McQueen and Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, Widows occasionally feels like two separate movies, which intersect in plot but never quite in tone. In addition to the near flawless examination of grief, widowhood, and female power explored through a subdued heist movie starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, and Carrie Coon, there’s a clunkier examination of politics, crime, and masculine power explored through an old-fashioned gangster drama starring Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, and Robert Duvall. Farrell and Henry play rivals in an Aldermanic race on Chicago’s South Side, with Duvall and Kaluuya as the devils on their respective shoulders. Though there are occasional hints of the efficient originality that defines the heist side of the story—like a one-take shot that quietly depicts the economic segregation of a single Chicago neighborhood—the gangster drama is too often bogged down by self-indulgent monologues, overcomplicated plotting, and eye-rolling clichés. To his credit, McQueen at least ensures those clichés are well executed—Daniel Kaluuya, in particular, is magnetic as a sociopathic henchman—yet that doesn’t entirely shake the fact that these sorts of archetypes have been explored many, many times before.
That’s especially apparent when the other half of the film is so exhilaratingly original. In place of the easy camaraderie of the Ocean’s 11 franchise, Widows is more interested in the tense, shifting power dynamics of its makeshift crew, who drastically differ from one another in life experience. Widows’ larger questions about class, race, gender, politics, corruption, and power are almost always more interesting when filtered through the film’s female cast than its male one. Veronica Rawlings (Davis) sees it as both a right and a burden to lead this new amateur team given that her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) was the ringleader of their husbands’ crew. Her unlikely allies include small business owner and mom Linda (Rodriguez) as well as willowy, lost Alice (Debicki). Veronica walks a fine line between enticing and coercing these fellow widows into her joining her team. That reflects the fascinating push-pull of Veronica’s character. She expects her newfound colleagues to pull their weight without any handholding (“figure it out” is her constant refrain) while simultaneously doubting their abilities at every turn.
One of the biggest joys of Widows is that its protagonists aren’t badass criminals, but untrained everywomen trying to scrappily figure things out as they go along. As Veronica puts it, “The best thing we have going for us is being who we are, because no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.” Widows is at its sharpest when it’s observing how these women translate their lived experiences into the skills needed to pull together a makeshift heist. Alice realizes her inherently vulnerable demeanor can be used for something other than landing a lover, leading to some hilarious scenes in which she starts to truly own her manipulative power. Practical Linda, meanwhile, turns to her babysitting app when the group needs a getaway driver. That’s how part-time hairdresser Belle (Cynthia Erivo) gets roped into the gang late in the films. It’s to Erivo’s massive credit that she manages to make Belle feel so fully formed with such a small amount of screentime.
Widows doesn’t overexplain when it comes to the motivations of its heroines, instead relying on its talented actresses to convey the complex emotional journeys behind their unexpected turn to crime. In an across-the-board phenomenal cast, Davis and Debicki prove best at this particular task. Though at first glance they couldn’t be more different, Veronica and Alice are both women who put on masks in order to survive in the world—masks they’ve been wearing for so long they almost don’t know where they stop and their authentic selves begin. Pulling off this heist unlocks new facets of their personalities and an unexpected kinship they otherwise never would’ve found. It’s the film’s most interesting relationship and its most underserved—the better to get back to those men and their monologues. Though every scene with its central heroines is propulsive, engaging, and refreshingly original, it’s hard not to feel like Widows’ biggest robbery was the screentime stolen from its leading ladies.
Widows busts into theaters Friday, November 16th.