Arriving five years after director Steve McQueen took 12 Years a Slave to the top prize at the Academy Awards, Widows is a curious follow-up. It’s not simply that it doesn’t have the heft (in its basics, anyway) as the soul-wrenching slave drama that stands as the British filmmaker’s great success. McQueen’s fourth feature overall is a stark outlier. His artistic voice has been one of grim assessments of humankind, cataloging unsparingly the agony of struggling for something better in the face of rigid social impediments. That preoccupation is present in Widows, too, but it’s backgrounded in favor of more conventional crime drama sparkle and pow.
Based on a two-season U.K. television series of the same name, Widows follows the efforts of a small group of women who are desperate enough to briefly turn to illegal activity after their husbands are killed on another job. Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) has the plans her husband (Liam Neeson) drew up for a heist that would yield millions, money she needs to pay off local crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). She enlists fellow grieving wives Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and they proceed to cobble together the resources needed to complete the robbery. In a nice change from the usual streamlined process of getting the crew together and assembling the pieces, Widows makes it look like challenging, tedious work. There’s no glamour to it. Hands start dirty.
The more McQueen focuses on the simple strain of mounting this unfamiliar criminal endeavor, the stronger the film. But there’s so much more to it. Even as he’s shaking down Veronica for money he’s owed, Jamal is running for an alderman position in Chicago. His opponent is Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), son of Tom Mulligan, who’s vacating the political position up for grabs. The screenplay — co-credited to McQueen and Gillian Flynn — slops around in the mud of Chicago politics, while also affording a sideways glance at the gun violence and police brutality that has bedeviled the city. There is consideration of generational divides and the brutal rigidity of class structures. And all of that is largely separate from the teetering tower of feminist commentary that is an inescapable topic given the basic premise. It’s a lot, probably too much. McQueen can’t quite finesse it all into something consistently cogent. The film is overlong, yet aches for more time to explore every concept shuffled up.
Despite the flaws, there’s an authority to McQueen’s filmmaking that carries Widows. It’s engaging even as it skims across the surface of its insights. And he does fine work with actors, providing the room for the sort of nuance that can deepen the material. Debicki is particularly strong, in part because her undervalued moll takes the longest emotional journey. Widows might not cohere, but there are riches in its messiness.