Movie review: Widows

A mostly great cast struggles with a caper during a Chicago election

Widows (Vdovy)
Directed by Steve McQueen
With Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson

Everybody is somehow connected to everyone else. That well-trod idea ties together all the characters in Widows, a sometimes compelling but overly complex crime drama from 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen.

The premise has the widows of several criminals forced by circumstances to have to carry on with one more big job to pay off the huge debt left by the failure of their husbands’ previous job. As a quick glance at the title shows, the previous job ended very badly for several people.

The film is set in a poor, largely African American and Latino section of Chicago in the US, but the film was actually adapted from a 1980s British TV miniseries.

As is typical for an ensemble piece, some of the plot lines work quite well and others fall a bit flat. A drag on the film is the miscasting for Liam Neeson as a dangerous Chicago mobster named Harry Rawlings, who has everyone living in fear. Neeson for some reason uses his doe-eyed acting routine, more suitable to the sympathetic father type he often plays than to a ruthless villain.

A lot of his role is seen in flashbacks, with his widow Veronica (Viola Davis) reminiscing about him. Veronica is the lead role, but Davis plays the character as cold and aloof. She looks at the city from her rather sterile and austerely decorated penthouse suite. This gives the viewer very little to grab onto.

The other widows are much more interesting, and more sympathetic as their problems can resonate with the average person.

Action star Michelle Rodriguez, known for her ongoing role in the Fast and Furious franchise as well as some of the Resident Evil films, gets a chance to develop the character of a woman struggling to run a business while her irresponsible ex keeps tripping her up. We’ve seen her tough side before, and this time she also gets to show a bit more of a realistic struggling mother named Linda Perelli, who faces problems and criticism from all sides.

The other widow in the group is Alice Gunner, played by Elizabeth Debicki. She had small roles in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and 2013’s The Great Gatsby. This time she is the eye-candy girlfriend of a petty criminal. She has gotten by her whole life basically on her looks. She has to step up and take care of herself for once, and this involves some moral compromises. She does prove to be more resourceful than she thought she could be, and has a great scene trying to buy guns at a gun show.

The most interesting part of the film, though, gets into old-school Chicago machine politics. Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) is trying to get elected to the City Council after district lines have been redrawn to intentionally hurt his chances. He is trying to take over from his father, Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall), who has long held the post. We see the gap between the public image of someone claiming to do good in the community and the behind-the-scenes reality of a corrupt family that has pillaged the poor for generations. Duvall, now 87 years old, has too few scenes. The conflict between the elder and younger Mulligan is far more interesting than the contrived robbery.

McQueen keeps the film moving, shifting back and forth among the plot lines too create multiple levels of suspense. But as the film gets into the endgame, some of the plot surprises are not as credible as they might be.

The big caper scene, with its rehearsals in a warehouse and then the actual job unfortunately is a copy of almost every other similar film, with nothing new except a group of women doing it instead of men.

While many parts are good, the film as a while doesn’t all pull together. It would actually have been better if the same characters were brought together under different circumstances than an all too generic robbery with requisite surprise twists.

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