Men Suck! That’s the message conveyed throughout Steve McQueen’s stylish heist drama co-written by Gillian Flynn.
When Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his crew are killed during a robbery gone wrong, his wife Veronica (Viola Davis) is left to repay Harry’s debts. And when gangster Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) pays her a visit to collect, she knows that merely filing bankruptcy ain’t gonna cut it. With the help of Harry’s carefully constructed notes, Veronica decides to do a job that might net her enough to get straight with Jamal.
To pull off this big heist, Veronica turns to the wives and girlfriends of Harry’s late crew. We meet the model-like Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), whose violent relationship with deceased crew member Florek (Jon Bernthal) was marked by abuse. We’re introduced to Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), whose husband also died with Harry, and in the process, took her bridal shop down with him. The fourth member of the gang, an outsider, is the athletic Belle (Cynthia Erivo). She’s been struggling to make ends meet by working several odd jobs, which require her to run from place to place—great training for a would-be robber.
As Veronica builds her criminal organization, bigger players in Chicago jockey for position. Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) is running for public office. He hopes to fill the seat held by his aging father Tom (Robert Duvall). Standing in his way is crime boss Jamal, who wants to increase his power with a political position. Race, gender, and economic disparities swirl as the pot boils in this crime drama that had great potential to transcend its action-heist genre limitations.
The good news is that there are moments in “Widows” that are pure McQueen. Working once again with ace cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, many of McQueen’s signature visual techniques are applied to this heist actioner. We get lovely closeups, especially in flashbacks between Veronica and Harry in intimate situations. And there is one long take where the camera is focused on the outside of a car as it travels the streets from one part of the city to another. That particular shot is a standout, and elevates the entire production. The goal is to make the movie about something larger than the mechanics of pulling off one big score.
But ultimately “Widows” succumbs to plot manipulation that undercuts the emotional impact. If you’ve seen “Gone Girl” or read Gillian Flynn’s source material, you might see the twists coming. But viewers I saw the movie with seemed to be shocked by the developments.
The heist itself is thrilling. And the planning of it is the kind of typical fun that we’ve come to expect. It’s grittier than anything in the “Ocean’s 11” franchise, but still a part of the heist sub-genre. Clearly, McQueen is going for a Michael Mann feel here, see “Heat.” And having rewatched that film with my 17-year-old recently, I can tell you that “Widows” moves faster and is easier to digest. That’s not to say that it’s better than “Heat,” which I’d argue is less about the heist and more about the cost of the criminal life on everyone it touches. And, in the end, “Widows” is much more concerned about the thrilling job, which given the talent involved is a shame.
Viola Davis is terrific in the lead. Her scenes with Neeson are striking. To see them together in bed is a thing of beauty, and perfectly captured by Bobbitt. Their relationship alone could have been a solid drama. Unfortunately, these characters are trapped in a familiar heist movie in which their backstory is manipulated with a rushed, ripped-from-the-headlines tragedy. It’s not bad, but it cheapens the dramatic elements. I expected something a little more sophisticated.
“Widows” is certainly an unexpected direction for gifted British filmmaker Steve McQueen. Having helmed some of the most significant films in the last decade, including shepherding “12 Years a Slave” to the Best Picture Oscar, I was hopeful that he could find the right balance as he moved to something more commercial. And there’s no doubt that he succeeds here, but he doesn’t give us another awards contender. It’s a heist film with dramatic flourishes.
Make no mistake that one overarching theme is clear and unambiguous throughout “Widows.” Men are the villains here. And even with the formulaic twists and turns that are directly from the Gillian Flynn school, the concept of women empowerment shines through.