Arguably the most ambitious heist movie since Heat (1995)
, just as did Michael Mann
's genre (re)defining epic, Widows has aspirations far beyond the limits of its generic template. Written by Steve McQueen
and Gillian Flynn
, and directed by McQueen, the film is based on the 12-episode ITV series, Widows (1983)
, written by Lynda La Plante
. McQueen's first two films, Hunger (2008)
and Shame (2011)
, were two of the finest films of 2008 and 2011, respectively, but I didn't like his third, 12 Years a Slave (2013)
, and likewise, Widows has left me distinctly underwhelmed. Operating firmly within a genre framework, the film essentially tries to filter the basic heist template through a feminist pseudo-MeToo prism, taking in such side-issues as political corruption, police homicide, Black Lives Matter, institutional racism, American gun culture, hegemonic masculinity, and the importance of wealth. McQueen approaches genre much like Michael Mann, as opposed to, say, Quentin Tarantino
, using the generic template as a launch-pad to examine various socio-political issues, as opposed to using it as a destination in and of itself. The problem, however, is that he tries to pack far too much into too short a space of time. Whilst I can certainly appreciate and celebrate how progressive the narrative is, placing a black woman at the centre of a genre traditionally dominated by white men, the film still needs to work as a genre piece, or no amount of moralising, didacticism, polemics, or political grandstanding can save it. And this is where Widows fails most egregiously - the core genre elements are as far-fetched and ridiculous as anything you're likely to see out of mainstream Hollywood, which serves to undermine and dilute the serious topicality for which McQueen is obviously striving.
Telling the story of a team of women (Veronica (Viola Davis
), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez
, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki
) , and Belle (Cynthia Erivo
)) who attempt to pull off a heist originally planned by their now deceased husbands, set against the backdrop of an election for the alderman of Chicago's 18th Ward, contested by Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell
) and Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry
), Widows is pure pulp.
McQueen's first genre film, he approaches it with the same seriousness with which he approached political protest, sexual addiction, and slavery. Obviously not interested in making a generic crime thriller, he and Flynn use the material as a vehicle for a racially-tinted critique of both powerful men (who are mainly, but not exclusively, white) and the corrupt systems that enable them. By creating a canvas depicting life at various social strata in Chicago - from the inherited white privilege of Jack to the materialistic social trappings so important to Veronica, from the poor black neighbourhoods of Jamal to the "everything is a transaction" philosophy of high-powered real-estate - the film attempts to address a plethora of racial, political, and gender issues.
And herein lies one of the film's biggest problems. Rather than trying to deal with one or two core issues with something resembling thoroughness, it instead tries to deal with upwards of about seven, and ends up saying little of relevance about any. There's gender, economics, politics, racism, police corruption, prostitution, gun culture, materialism, and because of this proliferation, several themes receive so little attention, you wonder why they're there at all. Gun culture, for example, is really only addressed when Alice is assigned the task of buying the team's weapons. Asking where she is supposed to go to get guns, she is told simply and unironically, "this is America", a wink-and-a-nod point which relies almost entirely on the audience's left-leaning political affiliations. Another example is racially-motivated police homicide. Several years prior to the film, Veronica and Harry's (Liam Neeson
) teenage son, Marcus (Josiah Sheffie
), was shot and killed by a white police officer at a routine traffic stop. And that's about it. Marcus does factor into the film's big twist (kind of), but the racial overtones of his killing are never brought up again, and it remains unclear what McQueen is trying to say with this underdeveloped subplot.
Which is not to say, of course, that none of the film's themes are foregrounded. Gender, for example, is built into the plot, especially in relation to notions of subverting the patriarchal status quo ante. As they prepare the heist, Veronica tells the team that their greatest strength is the element of surprise, because "no one thinks we have the b---s to pull this off". Later, she reminds them they have "to look and move like a team of men". Whilst on the heist itself, they have to disguise their voices so no one realises they are women. Similarly front-and-centre is the theme of race relations, something introduced in the opening frames - an above-the-bed shot of Harry and Veronica engaged in some very heavy petting. Whilst promoting the film, Viola Davis has spoken a lot about how unusual it is to open a film with an interracial pseudo-sex scene, and she's right about that; interracial couples are still relatively rare on-screen, especially sexually active older couples.
Another excellent shot that carries huge thematic importance, this time in relation to city-wide macroeconomics, can be seen when Jack and his assistant, Siobhan (Molly Kunz
), travel from a poor black neighbourhood to the affluent white suburb in which his campaign headquarters is situated. Filmed in one of McQueen's patented single-takes, what's especially interesting here is that after Farrell and Kunz get into the car, we can hear them, but we can't see them - Sean Bobbitt
's camera remains fixed on the bonnet, with only a portion of the windshield and one of the side-mirrors visible. Meanwhile, we see the city rapidly change in real-time in the background, taking only a couple of minutes to go from skid row to millionaire's row. McQueen's unusual camera placement forces the audience to acknowledge just how thin the line is, geographically speaking, between rich and poor. At the same time, of course, the ideological divide is massive.
Of vital importance to this particular theme (the vast differences between the haves and have-nots) are the Mulligans. Robert Duvall
plays former alderman Tom Mulligan as a closet racist (and sometimes he doesn't bother with the closet); an old-school politician who believes that whoever can grease the most palms and line the most pockets should become the most powerful. An angry vestige of a dying era, Tom resents the fact that a Mulligan must slum it to win black votes.
A less signposted, but equally as important theme is the corruption, dishonesty, and mercenary-like behaviour endemic to all levels of society. Really, the only man who isn't corrupt in some way is Bash (Garret Dillahunt
), Harry's loyal-to-a-fault working-stiff chauffeur, but even he (like Veronica and the rest of the widows) lives off the proceeds of crime. The system may be built on a foundation of toxic patriarchy (a very different thing to toxic masculinity), but the women are no angels in this milieu; no one is immune to the corrupting influence of socio-political norms.
For me though, the whole thing was underwhelming and predictable, with a twist that's as ridiculous as they come, and a narrative that relies far too much on coincidence and movie-logic. The widows need to disguise their voices on the job? Good thing that Belle's daughter has a gizmo that does exactly that! A highly successful modern-day thief who writes everything down longhand? A team of people (irrespective of gender and race) who become experts in something as complex as pulling off a major heist in a matter of weeks? For all its real-world social and political concerns, I never once bought into the central premise, that these four women could actually pull this off, and that undermines everything else. Additionally, unlike the Baltimore of The Wire (2002)
or the LA of Heat, McQueen's Chicago doesn't feel lived in; it feels like someone's idea of a city rather than an actual depiction of that city.
Just because a film addresses certain themes doesn't mean it earns a free pass ("look, Hollywood cares about poor people; we better not criticise the ridiculous plot"), and from a narrative standpoint, Widows is pretty ludicrous. With the plot often feeling contorted to support the themes, rather than the themes arising from the plot, McQueen's didactic and polemic concerns seem to have overridden his abilities as a storyteller. More a vehicle for protestation than anything else, that it tries to cover so many topics makes the whole experience emotionless, as if the filmmakers were dispassionately working off a checklist of issues on which to touch, rather than allowing the plot to organically lead into those issues. Because the central heist narrative can't stand on its own, the very real criticisms that the film is so concerned with enunciating are flattened and neutered. The socio-political commentary, for the most part, is never really integrated into the narrative - so you end up with a film that feels like its preaching at you rather than talking to you. If it had embraced its genre a bit more, and eased back on the homiletics, it would have worked much better, not just as a genre exercise, but, perhaps more importantly, as political commentary. As it is, it's a very good-looking but unoriginal, and at times, downright dumb movie, that seems to always assume its intellectual superiority to the audience.