It’s always exciting to see a critically-acclaimed director attempt a genre project, which can tighten their focus and hone the skills they already have (see: Shyamalan, M. Night; the career resurrection of). That was the hope for Shame and 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen taking on a heist movie like Widows, written by Gone Girl‘s Gillian Flynn. Only it turns out the film wants to be much more than a heist movie, which paradoxically ends up making it less. Widows attempts four or five different genres and doesn’t really succeed at any.
Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Carrie Coon play the “widows” of the title, whose husbands have all been killed in a heist gone wrong. You could’ve put together an A-list cast just with the actors whose characters are killed off in the first five minutes, which should give you some idea the scope of Widows‘ full ensemble — arguably one of the greatest casts ever assembled. Meanwhile, not only have the widows just lost their households’ main breadwinners, it turns out their husbands’ last big score had been pledged to a crime syndicate, who tell the widows that they’re still on the hook for the cash. Naturally, their only way out of this jam is to try carry off their husbands’ next planned heist, using the notebook Viola Davis’s character inherits from her husband (played by Liam Neeson), Book of Henry-style.
Meanwhile, it further turns out that said crime syndicate, led by Jamal and Jatemme Manning (Brian Tyree Henry from Atlanta and Daniel Kaluuya from Get Out) are trying to pull a kind of public sector Stringer Bell. Jamal Manning’s big plan to leave the crime game is to win an election for Chicago Alderman (“turns out da government was da biggest gang a dem all,” as a Gotti character so eloquently put it). Only, to achieve this goal, he has to win an election against the powerful Mulligan clan (read: the Old White Establishment), in the form of the retiring Tom (Robert Duvall) and heir apparent Jack (Colin Farrell — see what I mean about this cast?).
If that seems like a lot of balls to juggle, why yes, yes it is. It’s the ol’ caper to pay off the heavies (Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), the girl-power heist movie (Ocean’s 8), the city power exposé (The Wire), with an almost offensively stunted detour into racial politics and police brutality (Crash?). The attempt at each just ends up feeling incomplete. The relationship between each city power player doesn’t quite make sense and the heist isn’t set up well enough to be believable.
McQueen’s ability to shoot a nicely composed scene and get great performances from his actors remains firmly intact (Daniel Kaluuya may not have won that Oscar for Get Out, but he’s a virtual lock for a future one), but he seems lost trying to juggle this narrative. Whereas David Fincher seemed to focus Gillian Flynn’s provocations, in McQueen’s hands it feels a little like they’re flailing at disconnected touchstones. It doesn’t feel like either of them really know these worlds.
In a successful plot-driven story, A causes B causes C causes D and so on. In Widows, a wild set of coincidences causes C which has an unclear effect on D before skipping straight to G and doubling back to B.
In one scene, Michelle Rodriguez’s character goes to the house of an architect to try to get the blueprints for the place she and the other widows will be robbing. She bluffs her way into the house, but the architect’s husband calls her on it, revealing that his wife, the architect, died four months ago. Rodriguez’s character breaks down, having lost her own husband two weeks ago, and during their moment of shared grief he tries to kiss her. Which is an… interesting turn, and a provocative moment, but has absolutely no effect on the rest of the movie. What a wild series of coincidences to invent just for a red herring! This dead-end takes up a good 15 minutes of screen time.
Widows spends another 5-10 minutes on the women filling tupperware with dirt to mimic the weight of the cash they’re stealing to practice carrying it. Of all the things that could’ve used further explaining in Widows, the idea that “money is heavy” was probably not one of them.
By the time an antagonist shows up in the third act to lament “it was all supposed to be so simple,” the line ends up being unintentionally hilarious. Nothing in this story is remotely simple. And from the very start, it’s unclear why we’re supposed to sympathize with a criminal’s widow possibly losing her extravagant lifestyle. Carrie Coon’s character is a total afterthought, and Carrie Coon should NEVER be an afterthought.
A lean heist movie with this cast could’ve been an incredible thing, and the performances alone keep Widows from ever being too boring. But the story got away from them on this one. A movie that’s about too much ends up being about nothing.