Starring Viola Davis. In English and Spanish, with English subtitles. Rated 14A
Can a popcorn movie have too high a pedigree and still do its job? That’s one of many intriguing questions raised but not really answered by Widows, which tackles the Big Subjects without quite being able to nail them down.
First off, this is from British director Steve McQueen, following his 12 Years a Slave success with a seemingly commercial genre exercise: an all-female heist movie. Like Ocean’s 8, it boasts an A-list cast caught up in a high-concept crime. Topping the bill, and probably Oscar-bound, is Viola Davis, as Veronica, happily married to Harry (Liam Neeson)—a doting husband, as we see in an early-morning preamble set in their swanky Chicago penthouse. He’s also a big-time thief, as we also discover in the tightly cross-cut opening sequence. So the real trouble with Harry is that he’s dead.
The famous Five Stages of Grief are mentioned at one point, after Veronica starts meeting the women left behind by the other three men who died with her husband’s crew. Having to pay back a cool two mil, stolen from a Chi-town gangster (Atlanta rapper Brian Tyree Henry) looking to buy his way into local politics, is not usually on that list. This time it is, especially when the guy’s sadistic brother (Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) is on the case. In fact, she’ll have to process her heartache by getting widows Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and Amanda (Carrie Coon) to help her pull off that One Last Job her hubby left behind.
Coon’s character proves a no-show—one of many dead-end subplots here—so the gals recruit a tough runner from the projects (Bad Times at the El Royale’s versatile Cynthia Erivo) to be their getaway driver. Somehow, a sidetrack with Alice working as an escort takes the story to Colin Farrell as Jack Mulligan, running against said gangster for alderman in a mostly black ward. Mulligan is hoping to inherit this power position from his corrupt father (Robert Duvall), but wants to play it straight, even though the district was created through ruthless ethnic gerrymandering.
As you can tell from this thumbnail outline, McQueen has attached a lot of hot-button issues to an ostensibly pulp story. His frequently preposterous script, adapted from a British TV series of the ’80s (and a U.S. copy from 2002), was cowritten with high-trash priestess Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects), and they throw several kitchen sinks into the works, but forget to add the fun. The movie wants to be taken seriously as a feminist and class-minded call to arms. And yet it never even bothers to interrogate the women’s complicity in their dead partners’ nasty careers. In the end, it’s neither profound social study nor bubbly caper flick, but just a kind of upscale widow dressing.