Widows: Director McQueen goes popcorn, but social politics still pops up

By Karen Gordon

Rating: B+ 

Can Widows really be just the fourth feature film directed by Steve McQueen?  The Turner prize-winning visual-artist-turned-Oscar-winner has made three searing and deeply affecting films so far - Hunger (2008), Shame (2011), and in 2013, the film that won the Best Picture Oscar 12 Years a Slave.

So perhaps it was time for him to take a break, and make a popcorn movie.  But then again, McQueen has too many thoughts about the world and its injustices to keep a lid on it. So there’s plenty of social commentary to be read through the action, if that’s what you’re looking for. 

Viola Davis rounds up a tough, heist-capable driver (Cynthia Erivo) in Widow.

Viola Davis rounds up a tough, heist-capable driver (Cynthia Erivo) in Widow.

McQueen is a skillful, intelligent, purposeful filmmaker, and he’s pulled together a dream cast led by Viola Davis and Liam Neeson. But, in spite of all the talent, in the end, the success of a heist movie is in whether you buy the movie’s twists and turns. In this case, it’s an enjoyable ride, but some of the story’s weaknesses make it less than it might have been.

Widows is based on a Lynda La Plante TV series from the 1980s. McQueen co-wrote the adaptation with best-selling mystery writer Gillian Flynn, who wrote the screenplay adaptation  of her novel Gone Girl, and the scripts for TV’s Sharp Objects.  They’re an interesting match. 

The movie is set in 2008. Veronica (Davis) is married to Neeson’s character Harry. The two live in a beautiful condo. They seem to have everything, a solid loving marriage, and a beautiful life. 

But quickly, the whole thing comes tumbling down. 

Harry is a thief who commits high end armed robberies. He and his three associates are in the midst of their latest robbery when they’re ambushed and killed. 

The loss brings more than grief for Veronica. She gets a visit from a crime boss named Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Some $2 million of the cash Harry stole before he died ostensibly belonged to him and was earmarked to support his run for political office.  Manning wants the money or else.   And if he’s not menacing enough, his brother, and his muscle, (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) is even more persuasively scary.

Veronica’s possible salvation lies in Harry’s notebooks. There she finds the plans for his next job.

Jamal will be going after all the widows for the cash, so she comes up with an outrageous plan. She calls them to a meeting to propose they step into their husbands’ shoes.  Two of the three show up, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez).  The fourth, Amanda (Carrie Coon) is caring for an infant and doesn’t join. So when they need a driver, Linda recommends her babysitter, the resourceful Belle (Cynthia Erivo).

Turning themselves into high-end thieves is just one of the things going on in this movie.  Politics plays a central part in this as well. Jamal is taking on a local dynasty.  His opponent is Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), aiming to replace his rich and brutal father Tom (Robert Duvall), who is the incumbent. 

Like all good heist movies there are seemingly impossible obstacles for our heroes to overcome, including violent henchmen. The movie is put together with enough twists and turns to keep us off base. McQueen keeps ratcheting up the tension. 

And the performances are terrific. Each of the women brings a different aspect to the proceedings. This isn’t a female buddy movie. It’s a group of women in mourning, working their normal jobs during the day, and then coming together at night to learn to take action because their lives depend on it. It’s a fresh take on sisterhood. 

And for sure there are deeper themes here about race and class, and political systems that seem rigged.  It all works seamlessly. 

But, even still, the movie has some problems. There’s an unevenness to the tone at times.  As well, there’s an odd, unanswered moral paradox. Veronica is a straight up, tough-minded woman who has principles and a backbone. But it’s never clear whether she understands that her husband made his money via a lifetime of armed robbery. 

As well the ability to enjoy the film completely hinges on whether you buy some contrivances in the storyline, especially as the film starts to lean in the direction of predictable pulp. 

That doesn’t diminish the work by a very fine cast, or the very fine director. Even with the problems, Widows is an enjoyable ride.

Widows. Directed by Steve McQueen. Starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Liam Neeson. Opens wide, Friday, November 16.