Rating: 2 out of 5
Crime films have always had an interesting hold on the fascination of American minds, from serial killers to prison breaks, in a country where ⅓ of its inhabitants are registered criminals, we still find stories of unlawful activity rather entertaining. Audiences seem to contain more than sympathy but admiration for some of these tales, the glorification of Lowery’s recent Old Man and the Gun comes to mind. The danger of being a criminal in the United States is implicit and exciting in and of itself, spawning danger, uncertainty and a cyclical lifestyle that is difficult to escape. Steve McQueen’s latest, Widows, often ignores the intricacies of crafting a heist film in favor of political intrigue and a hefty dose of melodrama.
Widows follows three recently widowed women whose husbands or boyfriends died in a heist seemingly gone wrong, in particular focusing on Veronica (Viola Davis) whose partner (Liam Neeson in a miserably phoned in performance) planned the operation. Veronica then takes it upon herself to complete her husbands final heist after being threatened by local politician, businessman and criminal Jamal Manning (a tragically brief role by Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry). If this was the complete plot the entire affair may have been smooth sailing but by the fifth or sixth cumbersome sub plot this film loses any momentum it had began with. This movie is just plain distracted. It comes as no surprise that the Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell scenes were largely improvised, they sapped the life from this film. Not that there is no place for improvisation but these scenes felt like they belonged to a different film, and that’s not to say the dynamic between the two is bad or uninteresting, they just would’ve been more impactful in another movie, perhaps one dedicated to examining dynasty and legacy in politics, the effects of corruption both personal and on a mass scale. The film gets lost in it’s own political background never realizing that’s where it should of stayed in the background, instead the film wastes thirty minutes of it’s runtime attempting exhaustingly to bring it to life in the foreground.
Let us not forget, however, despite all the wasted time plaguing this film, Steve McQueen is a great filmmaker. This is the guy who made 12 Years a Slave, Shame (no relation to the Bergman of the same title), and Hunger in a little over five years. Occasionally this film has an inspired directing choice, there is a use of mirrors in the finale that induced a collective gasp in the theater. McQueen choses to use only the exterior of a car for a dialogue scene, the thick, protected, tinted windows aren’t even strong enough to protect Colin Farrell’s insecurity in this moment, it’s simplicity is its power. The same cannot be said for much of the rest of the film, some solid moments of style feel completely unnecessary, there is a tacked on crime aspect to this film intended to raise the stakes for the main characters, but they feel like Breaking Bad-lite, despite the neat one takes and visceral angles.
The highs of this film make the lows all the lower, just when there’s an entertaining moment, be it clever or tense, Widows can at any moment dissolve into lazy, overwrought storytelling. There are a nauseating amount of flashbacks in this film. Nothing against flashbacks but they are a sensitive and powerful storytelling device, they should only be employed to give the viewer crucial information, they should not be used to tell an entirely separate story. And some of the scenes in the flashbacks are genuinely interesting, McQueen probably could’ve squeezed two or three more scripts out of this movie with the loose ideas running around.
With all that said it’s no surprise that it was formerly a mini series, the story is clearly better suited for the small screen. Adapting a television show for the big screen is a bit like adapting a book, there will be elements that get lost in the transition, and that is okay, cinema is a unique medium it functions and succeeds on different terms. The worst part of this movie is that it didn’t have to be bad. There was an opportunity on both McQueen and the editing team to cut this film, to really focus and get to the center of the story, because this film does have a core, a pulse, they just might not have known where to find it.