****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SKIP IT. A poorly written, cliche ridden, Hollywood heist movie that stumbles over its own absurdity. Worth seeing for free on Netflix or cable if you want to see director McQueen’s visual prowess, but has scant few other worthwhile qualities.
Widows, directed by Steve McQueen and written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn, is the story of a group of women in Chicago who plot a robbery amidst political intrigue after their criminal spouses are killed pulling a big money heist. The film stars Viola Davis with supporting turns from Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Colin Farrell and Daniel Kaluuya.
This has been a bad few weeks of movie going for me. As I stated in a previous review for At Eternity’s Gate, 2018 has been a down year for film. There were two films I was greatly anticipating seeing this Autumn that I thought might break this year’s cinematic malaise, the first was the aforementioned Julian Schnabel film At Eternity’s Gate, and the second was Widows. At Eternity’s Gate failed me miserably, and so I was left with all of my optimistic eggs in one basket, and that basket was Widows
The reason I was excited for Widows is that Steve McQueen, not to be confused with the iconic actor Steve McQueen of Bullitt and Papillon who died almost 40 years ago, is one of my favorite directors. McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave was a Best Picture (and Best Adapted Screenplay) Academy Award winner, and is a truly terrific movie, but my personal favorite, and McQueen’s best film in my opinion, is his first feature, Hunger (2008). In Hunger, McQueen’s cinematic vision and dynamic style jumped off the screen in his big screen debut about the I.R.A. hunger striker Bobby Sands.
McQueen’s approach has always been a bit unconventional, for instance, in Hunger there is a static shot of a conversation between two characters that is held for 17 straight minutes. It is a staggeringly courageous maneuver for a rookie filmmaker to attempt, but McQueen dramatically pulls it off, aided in no small part by two pulsating performances from Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham.
McQueen’s dexterity with the camera, his flair for framing and shot composition and his ability to draw out superb performances, make him one of the great film makers working today, a true auteur….which is why I was so anticipating Widows.
But much like my disappointment with At Eternity’s Gate, Widows dashed my hopes of a 2018 cinematic revival onto the rocks of cold, hard, Hollywood reality.
Widows is a movie terminally at odds with itself. On the one hand, Widows is a filmmaking masterclass filled with expertly rendered shots, and on the other hand its story is a nauseatingly contrived piece of Hollywood hackery that is so far-fetched as to be absurd.
Widows is meant to be a Hollywood crowd-pleaser, but by the looks of the box-office it isn’t drawing much of a crowd, and it certainly didn’t please me. The main issue is that the story is too much, the script is too much and the movie is too much in that what it asks of its audience is too much. For the movie to succeed the viewer must make such gargantuan leaps of logic and suspend their disbelief to such a degree that the entire enterprise simply isn’t tenable.
Gillian Flynn co-wrote the screenplay with McQueen, and as she has proven in the past with her decrepit Gone Girl script, Ms. Flynn is not very good at screenwriting. The dialogue in Widows is just as forced and manufactured as the inane plot, the fault of which no doubt lies with Ms. Flynn and her writing accomplice Mr. McQueen.
The performances, for the most part, are pretty lackluster as well. Viola Davis is a good actress, but she never finds her footing as Veronica Rawlings, the leader of the widowed women’s brigade. Daniel Kaluuya is also pretty underwhelming as Jatemme Manning, the alleged badass in the movie. Kaluuya strikes the right pose but his Jatemme is a one dimensional character that never goes anywhere and is more akin to a dog chasing its tail than a pitbull on the loose. Both Davis and Kaluuya’s performances are entirely predictable and lack any spark of originality.
Colin Farrell, who in recent years has gotten his acting groove back with quality performances in The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, badly misfires as Jack Mulligan, the candidate to replace his father for Alderman in the newly reshaped Chicago district where the film is set. Farrell’s accent is all over the map and his character work is unfocused and erratic.
Michelle Rodriguez plays one of the widows and she gives the same Michelle Rodriguez performance she’s been giving her entire career where she is tough…real tough…but also boring as hell. She is joined in her uncomfortable acting futility by Liam Neeson, who comes across as equally unprepared and awkwardly out of place.
As for the bright spots, there are a few. The first of which is Elizabeth Debicki who plays Alice, widow of Polish descent. Debicki is the only actor in the film who feels like a real person. Her grounded yet charismatic performance lights up and jumps off the screen. Debicki looks like a supermodel but obviously has the soul of an actor as she never poses or preens but rather inhabits a genuine character. I have never seen Debicki act before, but after her intricate and nuanced performance in Widows, I expect I am going to be seeing a lot of her in movies that matter in the future.
Another positive was that one of my favorite, and one of the greatest, actors of all-time, Robert Duvall, has a small part in the film. Duvall plays Tom Mulligan, the patriarch of the political dynasty that Colin Farrell’s Jack hopes to inherit. While Tom Mulligan is not much of a role, Duvall plays it with aplomb, filling it with as much ornery old man piss and vinegar as you’d imagine.
Widows also has a fairly interesting sub-text that touches upon issues of race, class, power and politics that McQueen highlights with some exquisite shots, like when he places the camera on the front of a limousine while candidate Mulligan rants and raves out of sight in the back of the car. The shot travels from the desperate urban blight where Mulligan is campaigning to the tony upscale neighborhood where Mulligan actually lives. To McQueen’s credit, it is a fascinating shot that says more than any of the dialogue in the film. Sadly though, as interesting as the sub-text is, it gets pulled under by the cliched silliness that is the main plot.
Sean Bobbit’s cinematography is top notch, and his framing and shot composition, particularly his use of mirrors, borders on the sublime. Bobbit is McQueen’s long time collaborator, having worked as a cinematographer on all of McQueen’s features, and his confidence with the camera and his mastery of craft have always enhanced McQueen’s vision. In Widows though, with its ludicrous script, Bobbit’s superb cinematography is akin to putting a silk hat on a pig.
In conclusion, Widows in not the cure for what ills 2018 cinema, instead it is more a symptom of what ails the art form. What Widows has going for it is an Oscar level auteur at the helm (McQueen), a master craftsmen behind the camera (Bobbit) and a superb cast (Davis, Kaluuya, Fareel, Debicki, Duvall), but the albatross around its neck is the hackneyed script that scuttles the whole ship. As a result of that ill-conceived and executed script, Widows ends up being a contrived and vapid film that makes the fatal error of trying to give the audience what it wants, instead of giving them all that it has.
Whether you are an art house cinephile or an action movie creature of the cineplex, Widows leaves you lacking. It simply isn’t worth the time, money and effort to see it in the theatres, and you will feel like you’ve been on the short end of a heist if you do end up paying to see it. If you stumble upon it on Netflix or cable, feel free to watch it for free for no other reason than to see Bobbits cinematography and to maybe catch a glimpse of Elizabeth Dibecki’s star being born.
At the end of the day, cinema is the great love of my life, and Widows left me feel like a grieving black-clad widow of the art house. I am not sure what stage of cinematic grief I am currently in, but if I keep getting disappointed at the movie theatre like I did with Widows and At Eternity’s Gate, I am pretty sure anger is right around the corner.