By: Kevin Jordan
I swear this movie could have been better.
I could swear director Steve McQueen has a longer filmography. I could swear that he has done a whole slew of movies similar to Widows. If we are counting the more than twenty short films he has directed, we get to that slew, but I have definitely not watched any short films that I could swear on. As for feature length films, he has directed four, including Widows. FOUR! And, two of them I have never heard of (Hunger and Shame, which sound like the before and after at a Country Buffet, not movies). The fourth – Twelve Years a Slave and, wait, really? Oh man. It is a good thing I did not know that before I watched this film because I would have been much grumpier as Widows unfolded its mediocrity.
(Some SPOILERS ahead to discuss plot. And more plot. And even more plot.)
Veronica (Viola Davis) is the wife of a professional thief, Harry (Liam Neeson). The opening sequence immediately puts the viewer on shaky ground, bouncing back and forth between a heist/car chase gone wrong, featuring Harry and his crew (Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and the everyday lives of the thieves’ wives, Veronica, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki). On one hand, it introduces us to our main characters (the widows), shows us how they become widows, and kicks off the plot in an exciting way. On the other hand, the moment the sequence is over, the film screeches to a crawl as it introduces a political campaign for city Alderman between Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). As it turns out, the thieves robbed Jamal, but the two million dollars they stole was destroyed when the robbery went sideways. Since this money was Jamal’s campaign war chest, he gives Veronica a month to come up with the money or she and her little dog die.
(Side note: The little dog is not a joke. Veronica takes this lapdog with her everywhere, McQueen using the dog for all manner of discovery throughout the film. Dogs sniff things out, get it? I cannot decide if this is clever or a little too on the nose? Oh great, now I am doing it.)
Wondering how she is going to come up with the money, Veronica inherits Harry’s crime notebook, which contains a bunch of plans for another heist, this time worth five million dollars. Rather than sell the notebook (as instructed by Harry’s death note), she conscripts the other two widows and her driver to execute the heist. This, despite the fact that none of them knows anything about pulling such a job or committing crime in general. We are talking about three normal wives who insist at multiple occasions that they barely knew what their husbands even did. At one point, Alice even resorts to prostitution soon after her husband’s death because she has no discernible skills beyond wearing clothes. And, her mom makes her. Think about that one for a second. Actually, don’t.
This being the main plot, it is also the weakest part of the film because it simply is not believable. How much more interesting would this film have been if the widows at least helped their husbands in the background? How much more…oh, wait, the political campaign is back on the screen. We are told early on that Mulligan is behind the theft to help ensure a victory in the election, despite being told he was up twelve points in the polls. Then, nine. Then, six. Then, three. Then, you get the idea. The takeaway here is that the money seems to not matter at all to the campaign. Even a little. It is just a plot device allowing Jamal’s son, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), to run around murdering people as he follows Veronica around, despite Jamal specifically telling him not to do that. These scenes feel like empty filler because the widows are already terrified of Jamal after just the single visit (it helps that they know he is some kind of gang/mob boss), not to mention that no motivation is developed for Jatemme to be hiding what he is doing from Jamal. But Jatemme sure is menacing and murder-y.
The point in the film where I gave up is when the fourth woman featured on the movie poster, Belle (Cynthia Erivo), who may or may not be a widow, joins the crew. Her only connection to the widows is that she will drop everything she is doing at a moment’s notice to babysit for Linda. After Veronica’s driver is pointlessly murdered by Jatemme (Jatemme just really likes killing people), Rodriguez just brings Belle to their hideout and Belle joins the crew, no questions asked. I have a question – who the hell is Belle? Did the script just pull a random person off the street to be the getaway driver? Nothing we know about Belle matters in the least, especially to the plot, nor are we given any reason for her to be so eager to start committing crimes.
At this point, completing the movie was purely academic. I am not one to walk out of a movie; I need completion. And, yes, the film completes. All of the convolution rams into itself at the end in order to tie up every loose end, even the painfully frivolous ones. But, none of it is satisfying. Any tension the film tries to build repeatedly collapses due to the constant bouncing between plots, as well as the several flashbacks to how Veronica’s son died (which, like most of the things in this film, weighs on the movie instead of enhancing it). McQueen even ruins the reveal at the end – one that could have been really surprising – by hinting and revealing it several times prior to the end. Widows is not a bad movie, but neither is it a good movie. I swear on it.
Rating: Ask for seven dollars back and a decoder ring for all the subplots.