Widows - Review

An overstuffed plot and some amazing lead performances color Steve McQueen’s latest.

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Widows has a lot going on. Between a strong female-led cast, a subplot focusing on Chicago politics, and racial tension, it bites off more than it can chew. It’s great to see an action film so personally made, but there are far too many things to keep track of in Widows.

The cast, led by Viola Davis, is universally excellent. Whether it’s the always stern Michelle Rodriguez, a menacing thug in Daniel Kaluuya, or a racist baby-boomer in Robert Duvall, this film does not skip out on supporting roles. Every person interacted with is given a meaningful reason to be on screen. Veronica (Davis) and Harry’s (Liam Neeson) son has only one scene, and though it breaks the flow of the heist, it is supremely important. A black kid shot by a white cop, the son becomes the catalyst for Veronica and her husband’s separation, which makes the ending all the more gratifying. Alice’s (Elizabeth Debicki) mail-order boyfriend (Lukas Haas) is a sensitive, hurtful man who can’t seem to find a balance between his sexual drive and his emotions. This focus on characters creates the best moments in Widows: moments of intense confrontation or nullifying dread. It takes a while to get going, but the time spent on characters gives it a real edge over most action films.

Where Widows stumbles is in the handling of its various subplots. The Chicago election, racial prejudice commentary, the main heist plot, and the return of a dead character are mixed into an unrecognizable mash, to the point where it became easier to ignore the plot holes and just enjoy the ride. The 18th Ward Alderman election that occupies a large chunk of the film feels like a larger story told in condensed time. The son of the current Alderman, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), is running for the position against Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), the underdog who happens to run an organized ring of thugs. Jamal’s moments of intimidation are sublime examples of diverting expectations, as he uses his friendly appearance and home-grown aesthetic to divert eyes from his criminal acts, but it never leads to anything meaningful. A simple news alert ends the race, right at the tail end of the film. Widows handles its other subplots better, but the lack of care given to this leaves a gaping hole in the center of the film.

Widows is also noticeably light on action. Aside from a visceral opening car chase, there are only two or three major setpieces, allowing a lot of time for planning and exposition. It gets bogged down in loops, like the endless number of times Linda (Rodriguez) and Alice complain about Veronica’s rudeness. After a while it begins to feel like padding, but when the heist does arrive, it is a fine moment of catharsis for the long suppressed characters, and its events ripple throughout the entire city. The mishandling of subplots keeps it from becoming the far-reaching story it aims to be, but the moment works on its own scale. The lighting for these high pressure scenes is dark, nearly pitch black, and the perfect shade to allow the characters to move uninhibited. That’s the feeling of this film: the journey three women need to make in order to move freely through their own lives.