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
(a six-episode sequel series, She's Out (1995)
, aired in 1995, and the original series was unsuccessfully remade as a four-episode miniseries, Widows (2002)
, on ABC in 2002). 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, albeit pulp with something on its mind. McQueen's first genre film, he approaches it with the same seriousness with which he approached political protest, sexual addiction, and slavery. Obviously not especially interested in making what he sees as a generic crime thriller about bereft women taking matters into their own hands (which is about as political as the original series got), 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, etc. It often feels as if McQueen and Flynn were simply throwing ideas against a wall to see what stuck, especially when you consider just how little attention some of these themes receive, making 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. And ultimately, with so much thematic material competing for attention, much of it disconnected from the containing narrative, it's hard to focus.
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. 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; even in a world which celebrates something like Jeff Nichols
's Loving (2016)
can get made, interracial couples are still relatively rare on-screen, especially sexually active older couples (speaking at a Q&A screening of the film in LA, Davis said, "I don't care how much people say they're committed to inclusivity - they're not committed to that; the opening shot in this movie where you have a dark-skinned woman with a big nose and wide lips and all of that, and her natural hair, kissing - romantically kissing a white man onscreen").
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 (recalling that great quote from Bubbles (Andre Royo
) in The Wire (2002)
; "thin line between heaven an' here"). At the same time, of course, the ideological divide is massive.
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 (what is this, Battlefield Earth (2000)
)? 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. Much as David Simon
has always argued The Wire was about the quintessential American City, McQueen is here attempting to tell a story much larger than the sum of its parts. However, unlike the Baltimore of The Wire (or the LA of Heat), McQueen's Chicago doesn't feel lived in (as opposed to say, Michael Mann's depiction of the same city in Thief (1981)
); 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. As I mentioned above, for this kind of film to work, the central heist narrative must be able to stand on its own, and this one most definitely cannot, which works to flatten and neuter the very real criticisms that the film is so concerned with enunciating. 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, light on emotion and dramatic verisimilitude, but top-heavy with moral superiority. 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, outright dumb movie, that seems to always assume its intellectual ascendency to the audience.