by Charles Nash

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday November 16, 2018


If there's one word I didn't expect myself to use in describing a new Steve McQueen film, it would be "messy." His previous three films - "Hunger," "Shame," and the Best Picture-winner "12 Years a Slave" - are all crafted with such a high level of precision that you never doubt his sense of control. Regardless of whether you get swept up in McQueen's technical bravura or you find his particular aesthetic to be ostentatious (I happen to be in the former camp), he's an artist with a vision, and it's almost always an uncompromised one.

This isn't to imply that McQueen's latest film, "Widows," is lacking any of his directorial finesse. His immaculate visual style remains very much intact, with the camera scoping out the geography of each scene as it glides along each individual setting, often through one of his signature long takes. It's the screenplay, co-written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn of "Gone Girl" and "Sharp Objects" fame, that, while provocative and occasionally snappy, ultimately bites off more than it can chew. As an exercise in genre filmmaking, this operatic crime drama sizzles with elaborately staged set pieces, but on a thematic level, the meatier elements start to taste a bit spoiled.

Set in the precincts of Chicago, the film opens with our lead heroine, Veronica (the great Viola Davis) sharing a passionate make-out session with her husband, Harry (Liam Neeson), juxtaposed against a heist gone horribly wrong. In an effort to make away with a large sum of cash, Harry and his band of robbers are wiped out in a hail of bullets by the cops; their getaway van literally erupts into a ball of fire amidst the chaos. Stricken with grief, Veronica is visited by Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry), a local crime boss and upcoming political candidate, who claims that the two million dollars Harry stole belonged to him. Clutching Veronica's tiny, scene-stealing dog, Manning warns her that if she doesn't get the money back to him in mere weeks, there will be hell to pay.

After obtaining Harry's notebook that outlines plans for an upcoming job, Veronica contacts two other titular widows linked through Harry's team: Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), who endured horrible abuse at the hands of her deceased husband, and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), whose late partner was so deep in debt that her bridal shop has been stripped away. Left with no one else to turn to, the trio orchestrates Harry's last gig on their own, determined to stand up to the corrupt men who oppose them or die trying.

Based on a 1983 British TV series of the same name, "Widows" feels like an entire season of television crammed into a 2-hour-and-10-minute runtime. This is a film simmering with ideas, all of which are sociologically pertinent within our current political climate, but they're rarely integrated into the narrative in a way that feels fully realized. It's disappointing, considering the talent involved and the issues it's tackling, that the film can't seem to make a firm statement on what it actually wants to be about, dipping its toes into various pools while lacking the conviction to fully dive into any of them.

Partially, that's because the film is so lopsided in how it treats its characters, despite the stellar work from its ensemble.

Debicki gives a staggering breakout performance as Alice, who progressively earns back every ounce of the agency that was taken from her, but the film spends far too much time delving into a creepy subplot in which her Polish mother (Jacki Weaver) coerces her into sleeping with wealthy men for money. While certainly crucial to Alice's arc, the film is less concerned with making any persuasive commentary on sex work or abusive parents than it is with setting up how her contrived relationship with an architect (Lukas Hass) inevitably intertwines with the heist.

As a result, other key players, such as Rodriguez, get shortchanged. As she's proven with the "Fast and the Furious" franchise, Rodriguez has a fierce, magnetic screen presence, yet the material never allows for her to flesh Linda out into a fully formed character. Bits of dialogue drop breadcrumbs of a traumatic past, but there's an inconsistency to her actions that never feel rooted in any genuine form of anguish. It doesn't help that her most vulnerable scene of the film happens to be its clumsiest, capping off with a tonally jarring shrug of a takeaway that adds more confusion than emotional substance.

Other supporting roles include Daniel Kaluuya as Manning's right-hand man, a guy who would give the Terminator a run for his money; Colin Farrell as a corrupt alderman; Robert Duvall as his racist father; and Cynthia Erivo as Linda's tough-as-nails babysitter, who eventually gets drawn into the climactic caper. Everyone brings their A-game, particularly Kaluuya and Erivo, despite the fact those two primarily serve as props to keep the plot flowing. Farrell and Duvall, on the other hand, hammer home the same Trumpian ideologies at length, emphasizing how their very "survival" is dependent on the systemic inequity that their campaign promises to dismantle. (Ironically, the film's most innovative sequence punctuates this theme brilliantly in a single, extended take from the hood of Farrell's limo as it drives from a poverty-stricken precinct through increasingly gentrified neighborhoods, arriving at the politician's mansion mere minutes later.)

Of course, when it comes down to it, the real star is Davis, who anchors the film with a gravitas so commanding that even her subtlest gestures make the hair stick up on the back of your neck. As a woman on the verge of collapse at every turn, Davis channels into Veronica's conflating feelings of sorrow and rage like a force of nature; her very presence makes it feel as if the screen could go up in flames at any moment. Even when the script calls for Veronica to shift gears on a dime, often improbably, Davis imbues her with a soul, embodying the film's wounded heart with scorching intensity. It's a towering performance from one of our greatest actresses working today.

If I'm being harsh towards "Widows" on a structural level, it's mainly due to the fact that McQueen's craftsmanship remains as stunning as ever. It's riveting filmmaking, with longtime cinematographer Sean Bobbitt generating tension through meticulous tracking shots that are punctuated all the more powerfully by Joe Walker's razor-sharp editing and Hans Zimmer's pulsating score. As a pure, visceral experience, it's an undeniably entertaining ride.

Yet, despite the exhilaration I felt as "Widows" played out, my frustration for how muddled it all feels in retrospect has been weighing heavier on me the farther I get away from it. Perhaps the messiness is the point (politics, after all, is messy), but even if that's the case, it's ultimately at a disservice to the protagonists, who are basically reduced to pieces on a chessboard at the mercy of the narrative's twists and turns. And considering it's a film centered on a diverse group of women fighting back against the patriarchy, I can't help but feel that the characters themselves have been robbed.


Related Story


Read More »