Steve McQueen’s hotly anticipated heist film, Widows, has received rave reviews from the critics, so when I left the cinema feeling puzzled and underwhelmed, you can understand my disappointment. To me, there weren’t enough twists and turns for it to be a gripping action; the motives were too convoluted and problematic for it to be a feminist parable; and an overriding sense of pain prevailed that made it not quite a black comedy. Before the hate, let me explain why.
The incomparable Viola Davis plays grieving widow Veronica, whose husband (a lacklustre Liam Neeson) has seemingly been killed in a heist job gone wrong. With her husband’s colleagues’ widows in tow, Davis sets out to complete her husband’s next job in order to give $5 million to Jamal Manning, who claims that her late husband stole it from him (and breathe). Daniel Kaluuya plays Manning’s chillingly evil brother, who makes sure that the widows fear for their lives on the way to repayment.
Though it was definitely a special experience to watch the film as part of the Leeds International Film Festival, the acoustics in Leeds Town Hall were pretty awful, and echoes, paired with mumbly dialogue, meant there was a lot of crucial information that nobody in the room could hear or decipher. When the film ended, me and my friends looked at each other a little blankly. “Where did the money come from?” “There was two lots of money?” “Was Colin Farrell a bad guy?” “Who was the guy in the wheelchair?” “Why did they kill Bash when Viola Davis still had two weeks left to get the money?” Maybe this is just me, but there was a LOT of plot for one movie, with many characters that didn’t really need to be there and were weirdly fleshed out (I can’t believe I’m saying this, but here’s looking at you, Jacki Weaver). The sub-plot of the Chicago elections seemed poorly connected to the rest of the story – or maybe it wasn’t, but we couldn’t hear anything.
Where Michelle Rodriguez faded into the background as worrying mother-of-two Linda, Elizabeth Debicki’s performance as Alice was a real tour de force, combining gazelle-esque gracility with a killer drive and intellect that – not in a hackneyed way – proved she had brains as well as beauty. Viola Davis’ performance is a clear standout: a masterclass in emotion, with her grief and strength helping carry the plot when it sometimes wavered into poor clarity. Colin Farrell’s disengaged smarminess worked well, as did Cynthia Erivo’s no-bullshit tenacity as driver and babysitter Belle.
The film’s high point was its exploration of societal and political issues – both seriously and comically. The audience laughed nervously at a gag about gun culture, before being silenced in horror (yet a lack of surprise) in a scene where a white cop shot a black teenage boy dead in his car when he reaches to switch off his mobile phone. Female strength is also played out without, say, an Ocean’s 8 sense of gimmickry or a trite girl power sense of sickly sisterhood. To me, though, the storyline felt dated, with modern touches shoehorned in clumsily.
Loyal to its genre, the shots were long and whirlingly disorientating, leaving a sense of unpredictability and nauseous tension that was reinforced further by Hans Zimmer’s sparse soundtrack. McQueen’s colour palette was stark, daubed in greys and blacks, creating an austere – and if I’m honest, uninteresting – visual landscape.
Overall, I understood and enjoyed the themes, but the plot was convoluted and tried to tackle too much in its 130 minutes. Given the hype, the fact that only Viola Davis (and her criminally adorable dog) struck me in any way, I was sadly let down with McQueen’s genre film, especially when viewed aside his last work, 12 Years a Slave.