Widows: The Thriller is Gone, by Tyler Smith

Like so much of Steve McQueen’s work, his new film Widows is wonderfully-acted. McQueen has shown himself extremely adept at working with actors.  However, just as with his films Shame and 12 Years a Slave, I was left feeling cold and unengaged. I felt like I was on the outside looking in, as though I was watching fish in an aquarium. Of course, this tone is hardly a crime; many of my favorite filmmakers take this curiosity-driven approach to their stories and characters. The problem with Widows is that I don’t necessarily think this is what McQueen wanted. I think he wanted me to be deeply invested in what was happening, both intellectually and emotionally. Unfortunately, while I could certainly appreciate specific scenes and performances, the overall film felt distant and ultimately unsatisfying. It is a thriller in name only.

The story centers around Veronica (Viola Davis), the wife of a renowned Chicago thief (Liam Neeson) recently killed in a firefight with the police, along with his entire crew. When faced with her husband’s debts to a local criminal-cum-politician (Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry), Veronica gathers together the wives of her husband’s cohorts to pull off a heist that will get them out of trouble. Along the way, she comes into contact with the corrupt nepotism-laced politics that Chicago has become known for.

This is an inherently pulpy story, but is written and acted in a way that emphasizes the emotional consequences of a life lived on the fringes of morality. It is a exciting tale, told with a deadly serious tone. In that way, I was reminded of Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, another ensemble crime drama based in an historically-shady city. And, like that film, Widows often feels ashamed of the more populist trappings of its story, seeing them less as a way to entertain the audience and more as an opportunity to focus on complex characters played by first-rate actors. The result is a heist film that only seems passably interested in its heist. It is treated as an afterthought, dealt with perfunctorily while the director was busy with other things.

Among those things is the constant underlining of the difficulties of being a woman, and the perpetual burden put on women by the men in their lives. While the titular widows are sad that their husbands are gone, it is made clear that these men weren’t saints, often exploiting their put-upon wives for money, sex, or reassurance. This is a perfectly fine theme to explore, especially in a genre picture, which often forgets the emotional tolls paid by those who have the misfortune to care about criminals and conmen. And it certainly capitalizes on the current cultural moment, with ongoing discussions of the perils of being a woman even in the more legitimate circles of society.

Unfortunately, the script goes so far out of its way to canonize the women of the story and demonize the men that it began to feel a little ridiculous. If not for McQueen’s aforementioned cold directing style, the film could have felt like it was written by a high school girl just discovering feminism and eager to incorporate it into her work. It is an exercise in simplistic philosophizing, legitimized by removed directing and nuanced acting.

And, indeed, the acting is impactful. Understanding the power of his ensemble, McQueen wisely gives his actors plenty of room to breathe, which many take full advantage of without ever toppling into self indulgence. Take, for example, a confrontation between Colin Farrell as a desperate city politician and Robert Duvall as his aging father. These two characters are peripheral to the story, but McQueen understands that allowing these characters to speak their piece can more fully contribute to the emotional complexity of his world. It’s an impactful scene that could easily have been excised, but thankfully was not.

The entire ensemble is equally strong, with Elizabeth Debicki, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, and Jacki Weaver particular standouts.

And, of course, Viola Davis shows once again how reliable an actress she is. Whether she’s stealing scenes in Doubt and Out of Sight or she is the emotional core of movies like Fences and The Help, Davis exudes a strength and integrity that is absolutely magnetic. She finds traits and tendencies within Veronica that actually dilute the sympathy inherent in her character. Where a lesser actress could have played the character as overly-dignified, Davis instead portrays her with flashes of entitlement and superiority, while also suggesting the deep fragility of a woman who suddenly realizes that she has nothing of her own. It is a towering performance.

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of a stellar cast, Widows never really soars as much as it could. While it is nice to spend time with these characters, McQueen isn’t able to maintain the momentum required to pull the audience in, choosing instead to take us down different thematic paths and checking back in with the heist story only occasionally (and, even then, apparently under protest).

In a way, the film reminded me of a shortened season of HBO’s The Wire. It’s all there; the sprawling narrative, the diverse ensemble, the condemnation of institutions. This is perhaps inevitable, as the film is based on a British TV show from the 1980s. But where that show undoubtedly had the room to explore the nooks and crannies of its world and the individual stories and backgrounds of its characters, this film feels pulled in several directions, ultimately committing to those that slow it down the most, possibly due to a lack of interest from its director.

So, while the film is certainly competent and the cast is remarkable, Widows fails to fully engage. I was curious to see how McQueen, whose previous work is almost completely character-based, would handle a plot-driven thriller, and the result isn’t particularly surprising. In the end, Widows winds up like every other Steve McQueen film: strong acting and character work, but unfocused and overly mired in theme.

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