Film Review: Widows

More to be admired than loved.
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A lot of adjectives can be applied to the filmography of Steve Queen. Incisive. Unsparing. Masterful. “Fun,” however, never really found its place in Hunger, Shame or the Best Picture-winning 12 Years a Slave. McQueen has always been more interested in portraying struggle, both internal and external, than people actually enjoying their lives. So what happens when McQueen directs a heist movie, a genre typically characterized by at least some measure of excitement?

The answer is just about exactly what you would expect.

Though it may seem a bit glib to refer to Widows as an “anti-heist thriller,” it’s not far off the mark. McQueen, co-writing with Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn, has crafted a film that’s more interested in character than thrills. And while “contains a multitude of three-dimensional characters who are well-developed and have satisfying character arcs” is about as far from a bad thing as possible, dammit, this is still a heist movie—one that clocks in at over two hours, at that—and you expect there to be some excitement. As it is, it’s a bit of a slog. A well-crafted slog. But a slog nonetheless.

That said, you can’t really fault what McQueen’s going for here. You should just know, in advance, that you’re on track for two-plus hours of character drama instead of, say, an Italian Job or Rififi. And McQueen and Flynn are to be commended for the ways they mix up the typical heist-movie formula. You can definitely see the mark of Flynn, who took on the erotic thriller and gave it a modern-day feminist slant in Gone Girl, both in its book and screen versions.

Here, the eponymous widows—Veronica (Viola Davis), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodrigues), with Tony-winner Cynthia Erivo’s Belle entering the mix later—of a trio of career criminals decide to go forward with their late husbands’ next job after the men’s violent demise. They don’t do it, as conventional wisdom would dictate, to seek vengeance. They do it because their husbands, in dying when they did, left their wives some pretty nasty problems that they need money to clean up. There is “one last job,” with the main difference from every other “one last job” in cinema history being that the newly minted criminals really don’t have any intention of following in their husbands’ footsteps long-term.

Imagine a heist without the dick-waving and machismo brought about by men trying to prove how badass they are. This is just women, working together more or less seamlessly to get the job done, driven to break the law by the bad behavior of a series of scumbag men. And, in a notable almost-cameo, one woman: Alice’s mother, played by an always-great Jacki Weaver, has convinced her daughter that women are meant to be taken care of by men, so the only way for her newly widowed daughter to survive is to become a “kept woman” to a man (Lukas Haas) who has no interest in an actual relationship. Internalized misogyny is a bitch.

It’s a feminist credo—men are only interested in themselves; women are left holding the bag; women are more competent at dealing with adverse circumstances than men—reflected through a genre lens. Among heist movies, it’s ambitious and unique. Widows is one of those films that gets better and better the more you think about it. But while you’re watching it, part of your brain is off wondering what you’re having for dinner. Though well-acted and well-crafted—particular kudos to Viola Davis as the criminal quartet’s steely leader and Colin Farrell as a corrupt politician—it’s too long, too meandering and just plain lacking in a real sense of narrative drive. The suspense and excitement missing from Widows only rears its head in scenes featuring cast standout Daniel Kaluuya, playing the brother of a crime boss (Brian Tyree Henry) who figures getting into politics is the best way to illegally rake in money. Kaluuya’s Jatemme Manning is all coiled menace, a genuinely captivating villain who’s listening to public radio one minute and stabbing a paraplegic the next.