Widows might have made a decent comedy. It’s certainly the only way its premise and ensuing plot wouldn’t have seemed ludicrous. Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Lynda LaPlante’s 1980s TV series (tellingly, he’d have been thirteen when it was first broadcast, a great leveller of an age in terms of accepting daft ideas at face value – see my love for Dempsey and Makepeace) has been mystifyingly venerated by critics, apparently wont to leave their faculties at the door when it comes to an art-house director brandishing content easily clutched to bosoms if it has even a whiff of political/progressive acuteness.
McQueen and Gillian Flynn (Sharp Objects, Gone Girl, so no stranger to absurd twists herself) adapted LaPlante’s work, but the basics remain in place; the wives of a gang of robbers, none of them remotely experienced in criminal ways beyond spending their husbands’ loot, decide to pull a heist when their spouses die in a job gone wrong. They have a month to pay back a crime boss, so really have to hone their lack of skills in that time.
So yeah, were this a comedy caper, with most probably Melissa McCarthy, it might score some yuks, including an amusing shooting range montage and wacky scrapes as the gals attempt to gather the necessary info and equipment (actually, there almost is the latter, courtesy of Elizabeth Debicki). Or perhaps, even if this were the kind of swish, heightened, glossy affair of Ocean’s 8 – although, at least there, everyone has some degree of experience in criminal endeavours – there’d be a free pass for style over substance. But McQueen’s worst crime is taking it all very seriously.
Reviewers have mentioned Widows in the same breath as Heat and the director calls it “political pop” – as well as, in a sign of rampant self-delusion, professing “I don’t want to call it a heist movie as I don’t even know what that means” – setting it in 2008 Chicago, a milieu of rising murder rates and the sparring political ambitions of resident Irish American and up-and-coming African American fraternities.
With its female leads, there have been inevitable references to the picture’s #MeToo cred – ““It’s a #MeToo revenge story with a Black Lives Matter backbone” claimed IndieWire, risibly; slap that one on the DVD case, if you dare – as if any form of cultural cachet is immediately a sign of quality. Really, though, with material this half-baked, attaching a boast of relevance can’t help but look extremely cynical (or perhaps it’s the opposite: tragically naïve).
The political/organised crime element works relatively well, mostly because it isn’t outright silly. It’s dramatically coherent in a way the main body simply isn’t, but that also means it really has very little business being there; it feels like it has been stapled on to “sisters do crimes” in an attempt to make the whole more credible. Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall do sterling work as motivationally at-odds generations of the Mulligan clan.
The tentative political ambitions of crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), keen to get in on a scene that will open crucial doors in terms of business and perceived legitimacy, also has potential, but too often this side falls prey to the crude, short-hand antics of his enforcer brother (Daniel Kaluuya, evidently eager to show he can play nasty). It’s the movie’s equivalent of shouting “THIS IS SERIOUS!” in your ear, with a trail of bullet holes, stabbings and blown-out brains in its wake.
The wives – Viola Davis surviving Liam Neeson, Michelle Rodriguez evidently best shot of gambler Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Elizabeth Debicki turning high-class call girl after wife beater hubby Jon Bernthal (typecast as a baddie again) is shot and blown to bits; Carrie Coon’s Amanda loses Coburn Goss, but wants to keep out of it, although, as we see, this isn’t just motivated by wanting to steer clear of trouble – are well performed to a fault, but also a collection of broad-stroke clichés. Davis all steely and resolved but vulnerable within, Debicki battered and frail but showing her resolve beneath, Rodriguez doing Rodriguez.
Only Cynthia Erivo, underwritten to her benefit as a babysitter/beautician who gets inveigled as their driver, remotely seems like she has the smarts and capability of pulling off the job, and yet she isn’t even called upon to set foot in the house. Somehow Davis succeeds, despite a fatality (it’s alright, he’s a nasty old bastid) and a casualty (it’s alright, just a flesh wound). And after all that, she strips down to a vest, to show she means business, and puts a bullet in hubby, who faked his own death with Farrell’s help. Wait, what?
Yes, this cheesiest of pulp twists, deserving of bargain-bin Julia Roberts movies back when she didn’t know any better, is piled on top of the already straining under the weight of implausibility Widows, and the response is derisive snorts all round.
When Neeson surfaces alive and well (in Coon’s spare room), my first thought was “Nah, she’s just seeing him because they had an affair, the the way Davis has flashbacks”. But no, sadly. I mean, McQueen is more than welcome to put his name to any old crap, even to pen the adaptation, but it does rather call into question the judgement of the guy previously feted for Shame, Hunger and 12 Years a Slave, if he really thinks this is anything other than straight-to-video nonsense.
The thing is, for all that the screenplay is largely atrocious, and McQueen’s got no one but himself to blame for his adoration of LaPlante’s original, he does fashion a sporadically watchable picture. It looks very nice – everything is as crisp, precise and composed as you’d expect – and the heist, when it happens is very slick.
He also clearly works well with actors (others of note include Lukas Haas calling on Debicki’s services and Gareth Dillahunt in a rare nice guy role as Davis’ driver). Neeson’s hardly in it long enough to appear other than somnambulant, but even he’s given something to chew on in the flashbacks concerning their son. The scene of the latter’s death is highly impactful, but like so much of the politically-hued material, it doesn’t feel as if it belongs in something otherwise so trite.
It’s evident both from interviews and the movie itself that a whole lot got cut down, to the extent that elements are left dangling or simply don’t make sense (did Davis pay back Henry? How are there no repercussions for anyone involved? All of whom seem to be staying in the area? I don’t really mean from Farrell who probably doesn’t care about the money and was surely glad to be shot of dad. How could a school library refurbishment be dedicated to a known criminal’s dead son without serious questions being asked about where the money came from?) Even as fast-and-loose-with-internal-logic Hollywood fare, Widows takes some swallowing. As self-important “political pop“, it’s laughable.