As with any ensemble movie, one of the primary challenges for director Steve McQueen in creating Widows was inevitably going to be effectively juggling the variety of elements presented on screen. Whether it be the allotment of screen time for one of the strongest casts assembled in recent memory or the variety of plot threads required to connect the characters, natural forces would always be working to tear apart the film at its seams. To his credit, McQueen shows that he is able to contain these forces for the most part and produce a very solid, well-filmed story even as some of his key decisions seem to work against him.
McQueen and writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) take what superficially appears to be a heist movie and deliver an opus of a crime drama that involves city politics, domestic violence, police brutality, class warfare, grief, marital strife, capitalism, and — oh yeah — a heist. In isolation, each of these elements works and delivers a fairly clear and concise message. But when assembled together, the array of plotlines don’t seem to stack on top of each other. It’s as though instead of using plot elements to build a towering skyscraper in a dense city center that the audience anxiously sits atop, McQueen opts instead to construct a multitude of average-sized buildings and scatter them around a sprawling city. This causes issues with the interconnectedness of events and characters. Events that occur on one side of the city (literally and figuratively) feel isolated from other events in a way that keeps the central plot from feeling totally cohesive. Choices characters make at times feel born out of convenience for the story or have so little relevance to the story they are simply not followed through to any sort of conclusion. This is not to say that the film is poorly written or devoid of any coherence, but rather to call out the looseness of the film that was expected to be very buttoned up given its top-tier writer and director pairing.
Thankfully, the ensemble cast is virtually flawless and helps mask some of the issues with the story. Viola Davis was commanding as usual. Though she didn’t stray much from her wheelhouse, her wheelhouse — as we all know — is REALLY good. Brian Tyree Henry continues to impress in everything he does. Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall both maximized the time they were given and were at their best when paired together. Michelle Rodriguez surprisingly stepped out of her typecast “tough gal” role and seemed ready to show a wider range of emotion which opened the door for Cynthia Erivo to take the spot in a drastic about-face from her standout singing role in Bad Times at the El Royale. This could be a breakout role for Elizabeth Debicki who stood out as the one character to get a strong arc throughout the whole film. But without question, the best performance comes from Daniel Kaluuya who perfectly conveys a menacing demeanor that is used to assert his will on others despite not being an imposing physical force.
McQueen is an unquestionably skilled director who knows how to use his cast and cinematography to convey his message. In the case of Widows though, the abundance of messages never came together into a unified, compelling story which is what primarily keeps it from being great. For many, this is further worsened by the fact that Widows seemingly promised to be a heist movie, but ended up being a sweeping crime drama with heavy social messaging that uses the heist as a MacGuffin. This subversion will leave some viewers pleasantly surprised while others will feel robbed of an experience.