By Preston Wilder
Lynda LaPlante wrote the original Widows, a five-hour mini-series for British TV – and that sprawling source material is the obvious Achilles’ heel in this big-screen version, with the setting changed from London to Chicago. The film, scripted by Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn with director Steve McQueen, tries to do too much, throwing in half-baked sub-plots and twists that might’ve worked with enough build-up (i.e. five hours of build-up) but here just seem dubious. It’s a shame, because this is an unusually classy crime movie – and remains entertaining, even if it doesn’t add up to much.
In a way, McQueen (who won an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, albeit for producing rather than directing) is unlucky: his instincts are correct, just not for this material. He tries for something panoramic, building a wide-ranging picture of a world run on cynicism, taking in the gangsters, preachers, thugs and politicians in addition to the three titular women (Veronica, Alice and Linda, played by Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez, respectively). It’s a wonderful plan for a movie – but not when you’re adapting a story that’s already designed for five hours. It might’ve been better to do the exact opposite, i.e. drop the sprawl and hone in on a couple of strands – especially the relationship between the women, which gets lost in the jumble of characters.
That relationship is interesting because Veronica is initially (and even later on) not very friendly to the other women, even though the three of them are carrying out a heist together. All three of their husbands were gangsters, killed on a job – but Veronica was married to the chief gangster (Harry, played by Liam Neeson) so she treats the others as the hired help, or perhaps it’s better to say that the relationship is transactional: she assigns them tasks, and expects them to be done within a deadline. This makes sense because the whole world is transactional, that’s the point McQueen is making. A politician (Jack Mulligan, played by Colin Farrell) helps ethnic-minority women open businesses, but expects a hefty cut in return. Veronica herself is approached by another gangster (he’s also Mulligan’s opponent in a local election) coolly demanding the money her late husband stole from him, giving her a one-month deadline to deliver. “This is an arrangement,” says the nice guy who starts seeing Alice, likening their relationship to ordering drinks in a restaurant then being presented with the bill – and he’s probably the nicest person in the whole movie!
All these various strands – steeped in the same hard-boiled tone, mostly presented in short, vivid scenes – make the film consistently enjoyable; but it’s lopsided too, with a lot that feels flashy or superfluous. One scene has Linda going undercover, visiting a woman’s husband to glean information about her. He immediately deduces she’s a fake, otherwise she’d know that his wife died recently – but then Linda confesses that she too was recently widowed, starts to cry, the man consoles her then they kiss impulsively, two lonely people finding comfort in each other. The scene is gratuitous, unrelated to the rest of the movie – which would be fine if it actually revealed some important fact about the characters, but all it reveals is that Linda is lonely, which we could’ve figured out for ourselves. It comes off glib, like McQueen felt the need to goose proceedings with a shot of intensity.
Again and again, Widows feels like a case of a sow’s ear desperately being spun into a silk purse. One conversation in a car is shot with the camera on the bonnet, facing away to the side, so we don’t see the people talking, just the landscape significantly changing. Another scene, the old cliché of a baddie interrogating the minions who failed him, has the camera circling madly, as if to make it feel fresh by sheer vertiginous energy. LaPlante’s original has been Americanised, to be sure – but even that feels glib sometimes, with implicit shout-outs to white supremacism and Black Lives Matter. At the end of the day, this is a film where a villain shows his true colours by threatening a small fluffy dog; if McQueen and Co. wanted more, they should’ve gone with better material.
Maybe so; then again, the dog is a catalyst, showing his/her dramatic chops by enabling a pivotal plot twist – and besides, surely there’s a place in this world for films where villains threaten small fluffy dogs, especially if said films also come with a top-tier cast and a mood of acerbic worldliness. “It’s a system,” shrugs a random guy evicting Linda from her shop, and Widows, at its best, has the airy macro quality of exposing a system at work, the preachers and thugs and politicians. Female empowerment is in there too, of course – and the ending has one woman approaching another without an agenda, just out of friendship, probably the first non-transactional scene in the whole movie. Couldn’t have Lynda LaPlante it better myself.
DIRECTED BY Steve McQueen
STARRING Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez
US/UK 2018 129 mins