It’s a bit confounding talking about the overall appeal of director Steve McQueen. What comes to your mind when his name is spoken? What scenes or techniques pop out to you? To me, I almost immediately feel the way I felt after seeing 12 Years a Slave for the first time. Floored by the many nuances that snuck its way between the awards grandstanding. His newest, Widows, isn’t entirely different, no matter how much it tries to separate itself from McQueen’s usual style. It’s a movie based upon a screenplay by wunderkind Gillian Flynn that’s also based upon a BBC miniseries that ran for a couple of years in the 80s. If that gives you a bit of whiplash, it’s because it should.
While I can’t speak officially to the original series and its content, I can say for sure that Widows more than often feels like a miniseries squeezed into feature length. The premise is simple: Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) wants to finish the heist that her husband, Harry (Liam Neeson), died while trying to execute. She teams up with the other women widowed by the heist gone awry: Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez). They also bring Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a woman who babysits for Linda’s children, into the fold when they realize they don’t have a driver for the job. Things run amuck and get turned on its head a couple of times, as is the genre’s wont.
Each character has a story to tell. Veronica is a woman still struggling with grief from her son’s passing. Alice realizes that she doesn’t have two feet to stand out without her husband, and Linda struggling to crawl out from under the shadow of her own husband’s less-than-respectable dealings. There’s a point each one of the characters’ stories is trying to make, even when they get shifted off for the sake of the main narrative: A heist that is equal turns improbable and politically pointed. Basing the story in Chicago opens the film up to many a question about the current turmoil plaguing the city. They frame much of it by peering into a political race for one of Chicago’s wards: A place rife with political corruption affecting the ward’s lower-income inhabitants. At the hands of giant corporations, an entire ward’s population is thrust into being deemed lower class. Especially when the banks deem it risky for minority-owned businesses to secure funding. There’s a hoorah born with the heist when it’s revealed that it can double as a way of sticking it to those comfortable with keeping minorities exactly where they want them.
That same hoorah is often snuffed out by the film’s inability to successfully meld its political and thriller elements. When Daniel Kaluuya’s enforcer character subscribes to similar ideologies that the powers that be see fit to rule the realm, we cringe. When the true nature of Veronica’s son is revealed: We cringe even more. When the story drops a twist at the end of the second act that changes everything: We remain shocked. The aftereffects of some of these things don’t resonate because Widows hasn’t fully refined them. They can often just seem like plot devices to keep the narrative thrilling. Upon further introspection, they don’t know whether to make a statement or remain as heightened moments of action.
While the performances err to the side of boastful a multitude of times, it’s clear both McQueen and Gillian Flynn don’t want to reduce Widows to a straightforward thing. So, they don’t, and the film’s direction can quickly vacillate between political sharpness to having the focus of a storm’s eye drifting over a map of current social ills. Is it enough to incite the same kind of gut-wrenching “how do we make things better?” terror that 12 Years a Slave roused? Not entirely, but it does force the viewer in another direction. That of wondering if this a heist movie with capital-B big ideas or a capital-B big ideas movie just underneath the surface of a heist movie. Either way, you land, the results are thrilling.
On the bright side: Steve McQueen finds quick ways to subvert convention. The bloodletting that Flynn seems oh so interested in dredging up is sanded down by McQueen, a person that doesn’t see the need for exploitative violence when the drama deployed can make its mark. Jumping back and forth between narrative threads remains consistent and lets the story create a mad rush to a climax. And not unlike Fincher’s own treatment of Flynn’s material in Gone Girl, McQueen has an innate sense when to push away or embrace camp.
What strikes me as the most intriguing part about Widows is how its heist narrative connects with its political agenda, or how it doesn’t. Viola Davis’ Veronica is a black woman in a relationship with a white man. McQueen doesn’t go out of his way to signify this as something profound or earth-shattering, he’s much more interested in treating it as a norm. That’s how it should be. But when Colin Farrell’s corrupt politician gets into a car and bitches about the weight of the political world on his shoulders, McQueen and his DP put the camera in front of the vehicle and track it as it travels from the poor part to the rich part of the neighborhood. This aesthetic choice ends up being one of the most incisive parts of Widows. It’s just a shame that the story doesn’t tip the scales more toward saying something instead of delving into contrived genre twists. The framework is there. The performers are more than willing to carry that weight. Widows just doesn’t know how to pull it off.
Who’s to fault for that? No one, really. As Widows currently lies, it’s a taut thriller that ofttimes tries to also play as a “movie of the moment.” Whether those elements work for you might make or break your viewing experience. For this viewer, I’m in admiration that McQueen and Flynn used this platform to speak on some society’s ills, even though they don’t hold the same weight the other elements do. Luckily for the film, it’s stacked with performances that are capable of carrying out the more politically incisive moments even when the script can’t. See Robert Duvall’s Tom Mulligan, an aging racist shown in caricature that’s slowly being phased out of the political spectrum. If only that same phasing happened in real life and a bit faster