Widows (Steve McQueen, 2018) 2 out of 4 stars.
There’s nothing in Widows that a better script couldn’t fix. With solid performances all around and some excellent action sequences, the only thing missing is a remotely plausible story. Director/co-screenwriter McQueen (12 Years a Slave) and his superlative cast do their best, but, you see, the screenplay’s the thing, and without a good one the rest is a vain struggle for narrative competence, much less coherence. Fortunately, there’s enough here, especially from the four women at the center of the drama – played by Viola Davis (Fences), Elizabeth Debicki (Breath), Cynthia Erivo (The Rape of Recy Taylor) and Michelle Rodriguez (The Assignment) – to warrant some kind of attention. I don’t know how much co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) is to blame for what doesn’t work, given that the movie is based on a previously published property (which I haven’t read), but it doesn’t matter. It’s a mess. Exciting at times, yes, but pure cinematic chaos.
We’re in Chicago, and as the film begins, four local gangsters are killed in a confrontation with police. Did someone set them up? Perhaps. The more immediate issue is one of financial accountability, since their leader, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson, Taken), stole money from other criminals, who now want it back. From whom to seek retribution? Why, from the widows, of course! Which is how Veronica Rawlings (a marvelous Davis) gets involved, disturbed in her mourning by an unwanted knock on the door. Soon, realizing she can’t find the funds on her own, she recruits the grieving wives of Harry’s partners (though one abstains). Together, with a little help from additional acquaintances, they concoct a plan to rob a local corrupt politician, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell, The Beguiled), though run into difficulties when his rival for the city council, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry, Hotel Artemis), just happens to be the guy from whom Harry stole. Will they pull it off? The thrill is in the chase.
There’s a lot going on here, and some of it is a joy to watch. Seeing Davis come down from high-rise comfort, little West Highland White Terrier tucked under her arm, and slowly become a criminal mastermind, is almost worth the price of admission, alone. Debicki – who plays Alice, another widow – tall as she is, similarly starts out frail before developing real steel for nerves by the end. We never doubt that Rodriguez – as Linda, widow #3 – can be tough, but even she goes through a pleasant transformation. Finally, when Amanda – widow #4 (Carrie Coon, from FX’s third season of Fargo) – abstains, the women find a fourth partner in Erivo’s Belle, who normally babysits Linda’s kids. It’s “Ocean’s 4,” but without the jokes.
For the movie has grim topics on its mind, beyond the heist at its core. Mulligan represents the old cronyism of the white politicians who have controlled the city since forever, while Manning comes from the aspirational rising class of African American entrepreneurs who want their share. With new redistricting in effect, Mulligan has to campaign hard to win the seat his father, old Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall, The Judge) has traditionally held. He badly needs all that cash in his coffers. Too bad he is such a jerk, making himself the target of Davis’ desperate scheme.
It’s wonderful to see an action film with badass women outsmarting and outperforming men. For that reason, I wish this movie well. I just can’t get past the fact that so little of its plot holds together if one thinks about it for more than five seconds. Nothing makes sense. But McQueen does know how to stage a robbery in a new, innovative way, so there’s that. The good and the bad co-exist with the ugly, and the result is a movie two parts fun, two parts not. Partnerships matter; may McQueen and Flynn find a better fit next time around.