Widows marks the first “mainstream” effort by 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen. It’s based on a 35-year-old British miniseries that never aired in the United States, from Lynda La Plante, who created Prime Suspect. McQueen penned the script with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn. Lots of these elements sound like they’ll come together to make a very good movie and one that I’ll like. And they do. This is thrilling stuff. To be honest, though, Viola Davis holds it together.
Veronica (Davis) is reeling after the death of her husband Harry (Liam Neeson). He was involved in all kinds of shady dealings and died in a horrific explosion after a heist gone wrong. Accomplices in the crime that were supposed to be paid come after Veronica and all she has left is a notebook which has the layout for his next job. Harry left her with nothing else. She was never involved in his business, and largely lives her life on the up and up. She organizes a group of her fellow widows from this heist gone wrong, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez,) and together, they organize a plan to carry out the heist themselves and clear their names.
There is a lot going on here. Almost too much. There’s also a plot involving local politicians, played by Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall, and you’re not sure how this is related to the plot initially. Of course, it is, and all puzzle pieces eventually connect. This is a very smart script that ultimately does too much. I think this would have made a much better miniseries, by the same creative team, spread out over seven hours on a premium cable network. This is a heist movie that couldn’t care less about the heist itself. It’s more interested in character arcs and the journey of the people we’re watching. It would have been nice to spend more time with some of them.
Particularly Cynthia Erivo, a theatre actress who has broken into mainstream Hollywood fare. She has a presence about her that almost rivals that of Viola Davis. But she’s introduced too late in the story, and we don’t get a lot of time with her. It’s hinted that there’s something much more interesting going on with her under the surface but the movie doesn’t quite take us there. Elizabeth Debicki steals the show, and this should mark a turning point in her career. She’s the abused, passive bystander who’s ready to take her power back. She has several standout scenes that leave an impression. Michelle Rodriguez is also doing very good work, but she’s not doing anything we haven’t seen her do before.
Viola Davis, of course, holds the whole thing together. Her reliable powerhouse work transcends anything about this that could feel derivative or not up to her standards. She’s the de facto ringleader of this group, and could easily come across as the strong, indefatigable leader, and nothing more, and it would have been fine. But this character is nuanced in a genuinely surprising way. She’s damaged from a past tragedy, and she’s scared and broken. But at the same time, she’s a woman with nothing to lose.
McQueen directs this in a way that feels very ‘art house director classes up a B-movie,’ and that’s the best compliment I could give him. There’s lots of sophisticated camera work, including many long takes, and McQueen is smart enough to just leave the camera on an actor and let them act. You see a range of emotions go across Veronica’s face in a single moment.
Colin Farrell plays a local politician who is trying to gain votes in a lower income, predominantly black neighborhood, that he lives on the more affluent outskirts of. In a single shot, we watch the hood of his car as he leaves a campaign stop and drives for a minute, and arrives at his own home, and it feels like the viewer is in a completely different world. Moments like this are more impressive than anything that goes down in the actual heist, or any kind of action set piece.
This movie is violent but is decidedly light on action. It’s more into why criminals fall into the lives they do, and the desperation of these three characters. It’s overstuffed, but everything eventually connects, and it says everything it needs to say. There are a few loose ends, and it undoubtedly would have made for a more viscerally satisfying miniseries, but there’s a lot to like here. There’s craft on display and genre thrills. And you can’t go wrong with Viola Davis.