What do you get when you combine the harsh, take-no-prisoners style of director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave) and a script that he co-wrote with Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects), an expert in writing screenplays that channel interesting female characters; a script that is based on a TV series, written by Lynda La Plante, who penned also Prime Suspect (1991-2006), frequently named as one of the best TV shows of all time? You get a different kind of heist film, and one of the most talked-about, expected movies of the year – Widows.
Chicago, 2008. Followed by a heated, loving opening scene between Veronica (Viola Davis) and her husband Harry (Liam Neeson), we are served a different kind of heat as we watch a heist, led by Harry, go wrong, ending in an explosion that makes 4 different women of Chicago widows. Besides Veronica, there is Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), a wife, a mother and shop owner who promptly loses her shop due to her late husband’s gambling debt. Then there is Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), a stunning blond who towers above all, but lacks confidence to stand up to her controlling mother, who is willing to have her own daughter sell her body to ensure she has financial support – not that Alice’s late husband was a much better person, having abused her for most of their marriage. The last widow, Amanda (Carrie Coon), just recently gave birth.
Besides Harry making her a widow, Veronica receives a visit that pushes her entire existence over the proverbial edge: Harry and his crew blew up together with 2 million dollars they stole from Jamal Manning, a crime boss who needs the money to finance his campaign to become the alderman of his precinct; a seat almost set to be won by Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the next-in-line for the position that has been passed down his family. Jamal sees no issue with Veronica paying up what Harry stole, unleashing his brother and enforcer Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), who relishes the violence of his job, to ensure Veronica gets the money to him in time. Veronica, with her organized mind and desperate situation at hand, finds Harry’s notebook with a detailed plan for the next heist. She contacts the other widows, and being in as desperate situations as hers, all save for Amanda opt to take a part in the plan. As the level of violence escalates and Veronica’s driver is killed by Jatemme and his men, the women enlist Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a beautician and Linda’s babysitter, who is also in a desperate need of money, to be their driver. So much content, but story-wise, we are only at the first quarter mark of the film.
As we watch what follows, it is impossible not to admire the superb cast doing an amazing job – Viola Davis especially delivers on all possible levels – as the four women plan and train to successfully pull of a heist that was originally meant for four crime-savvy men. But what we watch is no Ocean’s 8 – the entire process is not friendly on any level and along with the details of Veronica’ and Harry’s past relationship we get to watch in yet another subplot, the overall tone is kept grim and laced with grief. The action is not flashy, but firmly rooted in reality, which is also reflected in the few moments of light humour, mostly involving Alice and the surprising ease with which she slips into the life of crime. And then the tension grows again, and never lets up until the very end.
There is no arguing that the main plot is interesting and well executed. But the entire film suffers from having an overly saturated narrative, and the cost for it is leaving the viewers dissatisfied. What could have easily been several separate films or an amazing (mini) series is packed into 129 minutes and served both too hot and too cold. The movie is good, yes, but it would have been a much better watching experience if it lost some of the subplots and focused and expanded on the core story. If this is a story of women, why do the male-centered narratives take up so much space? Yes, it highlights several social issues of contemporary America, but are they really properly highlighted when it seems that a whole series of them is cramped in a single feature?
The answer to all of the above is no, and even though all of the separate stories have immense potential, especially with the stellar cast delivering on every nuance of their characters, it is easy to see how Widows could have been so much more by being a bit… less. Perhaps a lesson for the filmmakers that too much of a good thing is still, alas – too much.
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © 20th Century Fox