The director of 12 Years a Slave assembles a dynamite cast for a highbrow heist movie that’s got more brains than thrills.
Five years after directing the Oscar-winning historical drama 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen has returned… with a heist movie. But before you start wondering if he’s sold out, rest assured: Widows is the most artsy, thoughtful, and impressively cast heist movie in a long, long while. For better and for worse.
In a nutshell, Widows tells the story of three women who were recently widowed when their husbands were killed in the middle of a heist. Unfortunately, those husbands left them each in a financial lurch, with debts that need collecting and property that isn’t under any of these women’s names. With $2 million owed to a local politician with a history of violence, they only have one option: they’re going to have to pull off their husbands’ last heist themselves.
Viola Davis stars as Veronica, an educator whose husband Harry (Liam Neeson) masterminded all these impeccable thefts. She enlists Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), a newly single mother whose business has been taken away from her, and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), an abused woman who has to turn to expensive sex work to pay her bills. None of them have committed a serious crime before, and all of them have a lot to learn about guns, getaway cars and violence.
if that sounds fun, it’s not really. Widows is a terminally serious motion picture, which juxtaposes a high-stakes heist with cynical local politics. A local election has pit nepotism poster child Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) against a “former” gang leader, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), and the heist that got Harry and all the other husbands killed has the potential to completely change the political and economic future of Chicago.
If that sounds fascinating, it’s not really. Widows has a lot impressive and intriguing themes but the movie is at war with itself, struggling to find the right balance between old-fashioned heist movie excitement with dreary political squabbling, and McQueen’s solution seems to be to keep the whole story at arm’s length, and behind a veil of icy, grim cinematography.
Widows invites you to look at these events and mull them over as an intellectual exercise, but it fails to invite us into any of the character’s experiences, unless those experiences are grief. Davis and Rodriguez, in particular, struggle with the helplessness that stems from their terrible circumstances, but the act of robbing a millionaire to better their lives never provides a meaningful counterpoint. It doesn’t seem empowering, it doesn’t seem fun, it doesn’t seem scary. It seems like going to work.
That seems to be by design. McQueen appears eager to portray Veronica’s heist as a just another local business, empowering people without opportunities, who were screwed over by the system, so they can earn what they deserve. And like most heist movies, you could really argue that they deserve it. It’s hard work stealing $5 million, and it pushes each member of the crew outside their comfort zones, and forces them to reevaluate their priorities.
But by exploring all those highbrow themes and overlooking almost every other aspect of these women’s fascinating stories, McQueen makes it hard to get invested in Widows. Rare moments of levity are overwhelmed by extended sequences of dour politicians trying to stare each other down while explaining exactly how and why corruption works. Even the heist sequences are stranded at the very beginning and the very end, unable to energize the rest of the film with suspense or action or twists.
That’s the big issue with making a heist movie like Widows into a larger political statement. If it doesn’t work both ways it can be dissatisfying. The pulpy heist thrills take a back seat to the arthouse drama, and the arthouse drama isn’t well developed enough to make up for that. All that buildup with Mulligan and Manning comes to a conclusion that makes a mountain out of one giant development and a molehill out of the other, so it comes across as though Widows wasn’t actually interested in the real-life ramifications of its own story. And if that’s the case, why take them so seriously at all?
Widows may be sterile to a fault, and it may have trouble resolving its storylines, but there’s no faulting the cast. Davis, Rodriguez, Debicki, Erivo, Farrell, Henry and Robert Duvall get meaty, complex roles and they all get to explore the best and worst parts of their characters. Even smaller parts are impressively cast to the point of distraction, with Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Jon Bernthal and Liam Neeson getting little screen time, but making a major impression.
And just as importantly, Steve McQueen is too particular and fascinating a stylist to make Widows a total disappointment. This is a thinking person’s heist movie, but it doesn’t seem to think too highly about the “heist movie” part. There are impressive observations about the economy and grief and local politics, but there are also set-ups that fail to get paid off and twists so obvious they barely qualify as twists. Overall there’s a whole lot of potential that doesn’t get fully realized. Widows is impressive without leaving an impression.