Just because I thought 12 Years a Slave was undeserving of the hype it received doesn’t mean that I don’t consider Steve McQueen to be a good director. With Widows, McQueen has delivered something that’s firmly in my genre-loving wheelhouse and still manages to maintain a level of social insight that distinguishes it from other films of its ilk. Widows may be a pretty standard heist movie by most objective metrics, but it’s clear that McQueen and screenwriter Gillian Flynn have something more on their minds than your average crime thriller. Sometimes those very ambitions can muddy the waters, but with its exceptional cast and McQueen’s tastefully restrained stylistic flourishes, the end result is a compelling and thought-provoking film that doesn’t skimp on the suspense even as its plot spirals wildly out of control.
To call the narrative of Widows byzantine would be something of an understatement; to call it overwrought might be closer to the mark. When a robbery goes wrong and the holdup men are killed on the job, the crime boss they stole from comes to their widows to collect (hence the title). Rather than simply pony up the cash, the women band together to pull off a heist their husbands had planned before they met their untimely end, ostensibly settling their debt while proving they’re just as badass as their late husbands. But wait! There’s also a political subplot about gerrymandering and gentrification in Chicago. And there’s a thoroughly unnecessary third-act plot twist that comes out of nowhere. And we’ve also got a racist Robert Duvall! There’s a lot going on is what I’m saying — unfortunately, not all of it makes sense.
What does make sense here is that Viola Davis is awesome, and McQueen gives her plenty of room to prove that point. As the leader of the gang, composed of Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo, Davis exhibits a steely determination tempered by an emotional vulnerability that gives her character some genuine depth. Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya and Bryan Tyree Henry are suitably sleazy as the villains of the piece, and Duvall seems to be having a good time hamming up the racist grandpa routine as Farrell’s kingmaker dad, but it’s really the ladies who are the stars of the show. Performances are strong across the board, and while I wish McQueen and Flynn would have spent less time on Liam Neeson’s redundant tough-guy act or Debicki’s prostitution subplot and paid more attention to developing Erivo’s character, they more or less get the job done.
My only real complaint with Widows is that, because of all its high-minded ideals, it frequently feels unfocused. The feminist empowerment angle is clearly the selling point, so why bog that down with a political plot that doesn’t make much of a point? Yes, the influence of dirty money and institutionalized racism on minority communities is pretty interesting stuff, but save it for another movie. Still, if you’re in the market for suitably twisty caper flick with strong feminist overtones and an interesting take on a well-trodden genre, Widows is right on the money.