2.5 out of 5 stars.
“Widows” is a film that has everything going for it. It’s directed by Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) with a screenplay co-written by McQueen and “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn. It has a stellar ensemble cast, including the likes of Viola Davis, Liam Neeson, Daniel Kaluuya, Michelle Rodriguez, and Colin Farrell. But none of those elements are enough to make the film, which suffers from a bit of an identity crisis, better than average.
“Widows” opens with a bang- quite literally, as we witness a high-speed pursuit as the result of a heist pulled off by Harry Rawlings’ (Neeson) gang, interspersed with quiet scenes of his life at home with his wife Veronica (Davis). The entire gang is killed when the heist goes south, leaving their wives and family behind. But as she’s in the midst of her grief, Veronica is informed that she owes money that was destroyed in the aftermath of the job- money that belonged to crime boss/current candidate for alderman Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). When she discovers that Harry left her the plans for his next job, and that she only has one month to pay back the money, she gets together the other wives of men that were killed in the heist along with her husband to pull off a job on their own.
“Widows” is compelling enough at the start, with that action-packed opening scene immediately putting viewers on edge. But it quickly becomes apparent that it doesn’t really know what kind of movie it wants to be, or what kind of message it is trying to convey. Sure, it’s a heist thriller, but it gets caught up in numerous subplots, from political intrigue and corruption (involving Henry’s Jamal Manning and Farrell’s Jack Mulligan, the opposing candidate for alderman) to female empowerment to gang violence to passionate twists of soap opera proportions. It tries to touch on every issue it possibly can, from racism to sexism, and sometimes it makes an impact, but often it doesn’t get a chance to give each topic the amount of substance it deserves. It’s popcorn entertainment that also played the festival circuit in attempts to woo Oscar voters. Those twists are almost too obvious to be surprising, and as the film progresses and we learn more about the characters, its ridiculousness gets harder and harder to swallow.
McQueen’s gritty direction is great, however, even if it doesn’t always pair well with Flynn’s script. He effectively builds tension in not just the action scenes but also the quieter moments, where simple conversations between individuals could turn deadly at any moment. Though the cast is great, this movie isn’t any of their best performances, but Kaluuya is the standout as Jatemme Manning, Jamal’s brother and a member of his gang. He oozes quiet menace, putting the audience on edge in every scene he’s in.
“Widows” is a film with a great concept but poor execution. It becomes bloated and over done in its attempts to be more than it needs to be, when a simpler script focused more on the heist and the women pulling it off would have been so much more effective. It’s great to see the female characters taking a stand, especially Elizabeth Debicki’s abused Alice and Cynthia Erivo’s tough Belle, despite their smaller roles. But this film ultimately becomes about much more than just them, and that’s where it loses us.
Runtime: 129 minutes. Rated R.