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by Peter Sobczynski

"No Shame"
4 stars

“Widows” is a sprawling crime drama that is so overstuffed with characters and plot threads that it feels at times as if it is trying to cram an entire TV season’s worth of material into a 2-hour running time. Actually, that is pretty much the case here as the film is based on a six-episode 1983 British television series (written by Lynda La Plante before achieving international success with the beloved “Prime Suspect” franchise) that has been updated and transplanted to Chicago by a high-powered team of talents that includes Steve McQueen, the acclaimed director of “Hunger,” “Shame” and the award-winning “12 Years a Slave,” best-selling author Gillian Flynn and a top-notch cast featuring the likes of Viola Davis, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall and Liam Neeson. The result is an undeniably ambitious film but also an occasionally wobbly and uneven one that is at its best when it goes about being a straightforward heist thriller but which stumbles when it strains to add layers of unnecessary artistic pretense to proceedings that might have been a lot more effective and affecting without all the extra stuff weighing it down.

Davis stars as Veronica Rawlins, a teachers union representative who lives in cool comfort in a swank apartment with her husband, Harry (Liam Neeson). It doesn’t take long to figure out that the rent isn’t coming out of her salary—Harry is, in fact, the head of a crew of thieves that specializes in intricately conceived heists promising big payoffs in the end. Although he and his men are evidently good at their jobs, their luck seems to have run out as we see their latest job go sour as the getaway devolves into a high-speed chase that ends with their escape van being blown up in a hail of gunfire from the cops that kills them all. Harry’s men were married and in a series of brief, brutal scenes, we learn the devastating financial impact brought on to them by the loss of their husbands—Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) discovers that hers gambled away the rent for her dress shop when his bookies seize the store to settle his debts while the abused Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), left virtually penniless, is contemplating joining an escort service specializing in wealthy men, a move that her own mother (Jacki Weaver) heartily endorses in between a few slaps of her own.

As for Veronica, she seems better off than the others at first but that all falls apart one night when she gets a visit from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a one-time crime lord who has elected to go legitimate by running for the newly opened position of alderman in his ward—the way he figures it, he would rather have microphones and cameras pointed at him than guns. As it turns out, that last failed job of Harry’s was to rob Jamal of $2 million earmarked for his campaign and Jamal wants it back from Veronica in one month or else—considering the threatening ways of Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), Jamal’s brutal brother and chief fixer, and the nasty way that Jamal himself handles Veronica’s dog, that is an “or else” with actual teeth to it. Of course, Veronica doesn’t have any of that money—it was all destroyed in the explosion—cannot possibly raise the amount even if she sold everything she owned and cannot go to the cops because of their presumed disinterest in helping the wife of a known criminal. At wits end, Veronica comes across a notebook of Harry’s containing all the details of his past jobs as well as the plans for what was to be his next job, a heist with a $5 million payoff and decides to pull off that new crime herself and brings in the other widows, whom she has never met, to help out in exchange for a million bucks each.

That might sound like more than enough material for an average crime saga but while Veronica, Linda and Alice are trying to prepare themselves for their first big plunge into criminal waters—ranging from acquiring necessary items like guns and a getaway van to trying to figure out exactly what their target is in the first place—there are an abundance of other characters and narratives bouncing around on the margins. The aldermanic position that Jamal is running for has long been held by blustering politico (and sub rosa racist) Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall), who has decided that his son, Jack (Colin Farrell), should get the nod. For his part, Jack claims to not be as gung-ho to follow in his father’s footsteps but it soon becomes clear that he has a healthy lust for power and a certain cynical contempt for those he would serve to rival the old man. Unfortunately for him, the race between him and Jamal is a lot closer than it should be, which pushes him into some desperate measures. Meanwhile, there is the fourth widow from Harry’s crew, Amanda (Carrie Coon), who doesn’t seem to want to have anything to do with Veronica or the others for reasons of her own. This leads to the recruitment of Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a woman whose need to earn money is so great that she spends more time sitting the kids of others (including Linda, who is the one who brings her into the group) that she does with her own children.

This is a lot to try to fit into one movie—I haven’t even mentioned other peripheral characters such as the rich guy (Lukas Haas) that Alice begins seeing through her escort gig who just happens to be an architecture expert with key information about the structure she and the others are planning to hit, the old pal of Harry’s (Jon Berenthal) who loyally stays to serve as Alice’s chauffeur or another character who turns up only in flashback—and there are times when it feels as if McQueen and Flynn are acting more like those guys who used to turn up on Ed Sullivan’s show to spin plates on dowels and ran themselves into exhaustion in their attempts to keep everything going. Having never seen the original TV miniseries, I cannot say how closely this version hews to it but I can see it all working there because the extended run time allows the material time to breathe and develop while at the same time allowing the rougher and more implausible patches to fade from memory as it went from episode to episode. By trying to shove everything into a two-hour-and-change runtime, the film too often hurries from incident to incident without allowing any of it to resonate in the minds of viewers. There are some moments where McQueen finds ingenious ways to dole out large amounts of information in a brief amount of time—the opening sequence that introduces Veronica and Harry that is juxtaposed with views of the failed heist being a key example—but things are so rushed at times that I found myself wishing that the whole thing were longer just to give some of the stuff a chance to actually register. The subplot about the newbie politician awkwardly trying to follow in his dad’s footsteps is so clever and insightful—although the younger man disdains his father’s overt racism, his ostensibly noble plan to arrange for loans for minority women in his ward to start small businesses (in exchange for a hefty cut of their take, of course) shows that he is indeed his father’s son after all—that it deserves an entire movie of its own instead of being shunted to the sidelines as it is here.

Another problem with the film, possibly another result of the attempt to try to do too much in too little time, is that the screenplay has more than its share underdeveloped characters, unexplained actions and simple WTF moments. Because Viola Davis is such a focused and convincing performer, we believe both her fierce love for Harry despite the situation he has left her in and her steely-eyed determination to pull off the big job in order to save herself and the others but the screenplay does not go out of its way to help her in these regards—there is never a point where it fully makes the case that a smart and dedicated woman like Alice would be so devoted to someone like Harry, whose line of business she is fully aware of, nor does it ever fully sell the idea of her just deciding to pull a crime elaborate enough to give even the experts pause. There are also too many characters that turn up simply to serve as plot devices and nothing more (such as the characters played by Haas and Kaluuya) and when they pop up, you can almost hear the narrative gears grinding away as they help lurch things along. There is also a major plot twist that is revealed about halfway through that is clearly meant to be some kind of dramatic game changer but it is not handled in an especially convincing manner and I suspect that most viewers will have more or less figured it out long before it is deployed.

At the same time, “Widows” has a lot of stuff that does work and is, in fact, the best film that McQueen has made to date by a long shot. The precise and oftentimes precious visual style that has often choked the life out of the material in his earlier films—such as the weird schism between the horrifying details of “12 Years a Slave” and the overly fussy manner in which he presented them that called more attention to his exquisite staging of human beings being cruelly mistreatment than to the mistreatment itself—proves to be a much better fit with the kind of straightforward genre exploration he is working in this time around. There are also a number of strong performances from the large cast with the most notable turns coming from Debicki, whose transformation from clueless victim to an example of cool confidence feels far more authentic in her hands than it has any right to be, Henry, who is fearsomely believable and undeniably fascinating as the criminal who decides to shift into politics and discovers that the line between the two is surprising thin, and Ervio, whose work here, coming on the heels of her work as one of the few redeeming elements of “Bad Times at the El Royale,” confirms that she is one of the more exciting new faces to hit the screen in some time. On the technical side, McQueen also shows a surprisingly affinity for handling his action sequences, presenting them in a clean and efficient manner that does not rely on an over-amped editing style to keep things moving along.

Although some have claimed otherwise, “Widows” is not a masterpiece of the crime genre by any stretch of the imagination—the story never fully convinces and some seemingly key characters end being frustratingly sketched in rather than fully developed. While it may not be a great example of the genre, it is still a very good one and even when it does stumble at times, it is usually as the result of the film being too ambitious rather than out of laziness. It is smart, well-made and filled with a lot of strong performances and it is the rare movie of late that leaves you wanting more rather than less.

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originally posted: 11/16/18 01:34:59
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 AFI Fest For more in the 2018 AFI Fest series, click here.

User Comments

8/07/19 Luisa Great film! 4 stars
7/20/19 Jake "Toffee-nosed" bastard How did British made dog-shit like this ever get released in American movie houses ! ?. 1 stars
3/03/19 Eggbert Sandwich Totally unwatchable British made crap. 1 stars
12/01/18 Bob Dog An enthralling heist movie that leisurely drew me in. 4 stars
11/16/18 Louise The old TV show was a joke and so is this. 1 stars
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  16-Nov-2018 (R)
  DVD: 05-Feb-2019


  DVD: 05-Feb-2019

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