Steve McQueen’s Widows opens with the tense inter-cutting sequences of a heist gone horribly wrong and shows us in a few propulsive minutes how four women became the widows of the film’s title. It’s a cracker jack set-up to what promises to be an emotionally explosive thriller…but what follows is two hours of slow-burn that goes nowhere thanks to an undercooked screenplay and woefully underdeveloped characters. While McQueen shows us in brilliant brevity how these women became widows, Gillian Flynn’s screenplay gives us no insight into how they became wives of criminals or why their husbands were criminals in the first place. And when the women bond together for a heist, there’s nothing in them (except for Viola Davis’ natural fierceness that comes more from her as a performer than anything evident in Flynn’s limp writing), we have no emotional investment in the outcome or belief that they can pull it off.
Widows is one of those crime thrillers full of endless, clichéd scenes designed to show us how a character is one of three things: tough as hell, corrupt as hell, or trapped in hell. McQueen does his best to eek something out of the story with crisp, perfectly framed shots of environs and exquisite camerawork. Chicago, in a grim visual poetry, arises from the ashes of this junk heap of a story as the best written character. One scene where a corrupt politician (Colin Farrell) is being chauffeured from the bad side of a neighborhood to the posh side in just a few blocks is a minor masterpiece of sociopolitical commentary on gentrification and wealth inequality. Sadly, nothing else in the film elaborates on this in any insightful way.
Adapted from a British mini-series, Flynn and McQueen attempt to fit side stories and side characters, who originally had room to breathe, into a two-hour runtime leading to that curious phenomenon of a film feeling bother overlong and undercooked. Who are all of these people? Why are they in the situations they are in? Behind the obvious clichéd set-ups, we don’t get to know them at all. The cast, bless their hearts, get some great direction from McQueen and try their best to rise above how their characters are written, but there’s just not enough meat on their bones to make the audience care.
Imagine how memorable and scary Daniel Kaluuya’s character (a politician’s strongman and mobster brother) would’ve been had we been given even the smallest sliver of back story or insight into his raison-d’etre? Instead, the magnetic Kaluuya is left to stare everyone down, leaving his unceremonious demise against a highway barrier as shrug inducing as everything else in the film.
The filmmakers would have us believe there was a heart to the story – some grand love story between Viola Davis and Liam Neeson, two intense performers who make you feel like something must’ve been there between these two even though the screenplay gives us nothing except a tacked-on tragedy surrounding their teenage son. How did this unlikely pair (a teachers’ union leader and a career criminal) meet? What drew them and kept them together? The film’s twist and climax center on this relationship, but to the viewer – apart from the performers’ snorting, seething, crying best – there’s nothing there to chew on.
Flynn unfortunately turns to her old modus operandi: penning stories about horrible people doing horrible things to each other, this time with sentimental tacked-on conclusions that make no sense. When it’s her own material (like Gone Girl or Sharp Objects) she’s great at making this stuff glossy, pulpy, and pop…but trying to fit the adaptation of someone else’s material into this mold proves to be an arduous exercise. She’s lucky Steve McQueen signed on to film it, because if anything, this proves he can shoot garbage and make it look like a million bucks…but when there’s no soul to the story, what’s the point?
At one point early in the film Robert Duval (the clichéd old corrupt politician trying to control his legacy) balks at his son’s fancy new painting for which he overpaid. “Wallpaper or art?” Duvall pokes at Colin Farrell. Unfortunately for us, Widows is just wallpaper.