My Review of Widows (2018)

Image courtesy of NPR: Viola Davis as Veronica Rawlings in Steve McQueen’s Widows (2018).

3/5| Crime| Drama| 2hr 9m

Director: Steve McQueen
Screenplay: Gillian Flynn, Steve McQueen
Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt

We are in the thick of awards season, and Academy Award winning director Steve McQueen is back with Widows, a gorgeously shot and well- manicured genre film that dresses up its B-movie storyline with a flurry of well-known talent and an extremely cute pup. But even with a stacked cast and crew, McQueen’s attempt to grasp a mainstream audience proves that it takes more to elevate a genre than nice visuals and well delivered lines. Despite its best efforts,  this experiment simply puts too much on its plate, and gives copious empty promises in a space where it doesn’t have time to completely deliver.

Widows tells the story of  Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis), a woman whose life is turned upside down after her thief of a husband (Liam Neeson) and his team die during a heist gone wrong. She, along with the other widows (Michelle  Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki) and a babysitter (Cynthia Erivo),  plans to execute a heist for $5 million in an attempt to settle the debt their husbands left behind. Coasting mostly on the fact that no one “thinks they have the balls to pull [a job like] this off,” each woman brings her own special strengths to the team that are never fully demonstrated over the two-hour period.

Image courtesy of Glamour: Michelle Rodriguez, Viola Davis, Cynthia Erivo and Elizabeth Debicki as Linda, Veronica, Belle and Alice in Widows (2018).

The pitch for this film is brilliant. Its plot sounds like a blaxploitation film that would’ve come out in the 1970’s, and that’s what ultimately leads to this film’s downfall for me. Its execution simply doesn’t focus on what makes that concept so great: the outlandishness of it all. This is something that any other auteur director would have a field day with, but not here. It seems so primed for awards consideration that it doesn’t try to have any fun with its premise. It stays on a straight and narrow path that ends up making the whole experience feel quite blasé. McQueen’s films tend to fall into neo-noir, arthouse categories and Widows is a clear reflection of that.  This is a movie that has plenty of things to say about interracial relationships, feminism, sexism, gang warfare and political corruption, but it all comes together in a way that feels overstuffed and doesn’t leave room for the story to breathe.

What kills me most about Widows is that its strong premise was squandered in a medium that didn’t allow it to reach its full potential. McQueen chose to make this a feature film when it clearly belongs on the small screen. In fact, this movie is based on a British primetime television series of the same name that ran from 1983-1985. I find that so frustrating because McQueen’s keen eye to detail would’ve been a huge treat for television audiences if this was presented as an eight-part miniseries ( which I would not be opposed to seeing HBO or FX pick this up for series in a few years). Not only would the story have felt more engaging, but it would have allowed McQueen and Flynn to fully explore and realize these characters, who are simply not given enough to do. These actors and their characters deserve more room to shine.

Image courtesy of GQ: Elizabeth Debicki as Alice Gunner in Widows (2018).

The cast saves this movie and is the entire reason it doesn’t crumble. We all know that Davis is a star who always delivers powerhouse performances, but here she proves that she has the chops to go beyond a supporting player and reach certified movie star status. And her shine only illuminates other actors, as the true standout of this film is Elizabeth Debicki as the timid beauty queen, Alice Gunner, a woman who uses her feminine wiles to get the ball rolling on the heist plan. Debicki has the best monologues in the whole movie and her scenes are a great contrast to the sheer brutality of every scene featuring Daniel Kaluuya, who we recognize from last year’s Get Out.  While we are used to seeing him playing the quintessential good guy, here he gives an intoxicatingly violent antagonistic performance. Kaluuya’s character isn’t a man of many words, but his actions speak volumes as to what kind of movie this is.

Even with all the great performances, there were a few wacky ones that border on parody. Robert Duvall as Tom Mulligan, an incumbent power broker, gives a performance that comes off as improvisational, and seemed like it was doing everything it could to remove me from the story. It was almost cringe-inducing, which is quite rare for the veteran actor. Colin Farrell on the other hand was giving us a vocal accent that seemed like a mixture of Irish and Boston, even though the story takes place in Chicago. I’m not sure what he was going for but it was beyond distracting.

Despite all the glitz and glam of this film’s pedigree, Widows makes for a familiar experience muddled with subplots that seem to go no where. I’m not sure how it will do this awards season, but I’m sure it will be a topic of conversation due to all the great names involved. I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets a few Supporting Actor/Actress nominations; I’d actually  endorse that kind of recognition even though I don’t think the movie itself is up to snuff. I gave this film a medium score, because I feel it was a medium experience and I hope I thoroughly explained all the reasons why. In conclusion, Widows has a lot going for it, but ultimately ends up caught in its own web.

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