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New Viola Davis movie, ‘Widows,’ is an ambitious mishmash

This might sound crazy, but this two-hour movie should be longer so all these great actors and ideas get to shine

Widows would make an excellent limited series for premium cable.

To some people, this might sound like a diss. It’s not. It’s not even shade!

Widows, the new Steve McQueen film starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo, feels like a mashup of Big Little Lies and The Wire. It leaves you wishing that it could be devoured in cliff-hanging episodic chunks instead of the 2 hours and 9 minutes it takes to unfold on the big screen. Perhaps that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, seeing as McQueen’s Widows is an adaptation of a British television series that first aired in 1983.

The broad strokes are these: Three Chicago women — Veronica (Davis), Alice (Debicki) and Linda (Rodriguez) — are left penniless and indebted when their thieving husbands become barbecue in a robbery gone wrong. Left to fend for themselves, the women follow Veronica’s lead after she discovers her husband Harry Rawlings’ notebook, filled with meticulous details of every job he’d ever done, including his last. All the widows were fairly removed from their husbands’ extrajudicial exploits, but when Harry’s rivals, brothers Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry) and Jatemme Manning (Daniel Kaluuya), come to collect what’s theirs, the women are forced to wise up. Quickly.

Meanwhile, Jamal Manning is running against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) to capture an aldermanic seat that’s been in the Mulligan family for generations. Jamal would rather deal in city contracts instead of drugs, figuring the shift in focus will lengthen his life expectancy. Jatemme is far less concerned with such worries, and Kaluuya plays him with a menacing, bloodthirsty quality that makes him a terrifically fearsome villain.

The story, co-written by McQueen and Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, is an ambitious one, full of big, complicated themes and gasp-worthy twists, set off by one impressive performance after another. But it doesn’t quite fit together seamlessly because the story attempts to marry:

  1. The racial and ethnic divisions of Chicago machine politics
  2. Women from disparate backgrounds who are disenfranchised in their own lives learning to fend for themselves
  3. A mysterious dead husband with many loose ends
  4. The marital fallout from the death of a young biracial black man at the hands of a trigger-happy police officer
  5. Parents who keep pushing their ambitions onto their resentful children, AND
  6. The heist the trailers said you were coming to see.

That’s a lot to accomplish.

Every element gets its moment, and in elegant fashion, but they all could use more time to breathe and connect to the rest of the film. This, perhaps, is McQueen’s fault for selecting such an extraordinary cast: Alice’s disagreements with her mother, played by a fantastically loathsome Jacki Weaver, are bursting with years of held-in resentment. So, too, are those between Jack Mulligan and his father, Tom (Robert Duvall), a prickly, legacy-obsessed racist who can still turn instantly accommodating when the moment requires it.

Daniel Kaluuya (left) and Brian Tyree Henry (right) as Jatemme and Jamal Manning in Widows.

Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

You’ll want to spend more time with each of them, especially because the obscene luxury of Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography ensures that even if you have trouble keeping track of all of Widows’ moving pieces, you will still be enchanted by them.

For instance, to illustrate how a gaping class divide between black and white in Chicago can be found within a small geographic footprint, McQueen follows Mulligan from a campaign event in his district to tout his support for minority businesses down the street to the Mulligan home.

Viewers see Mulligan and a campaign aide get into a hired car that drives them away from the event. Over the course of a few blocks, vacant lots and trash-filled curbs give way to tree-lined sidewalks and majestic, old-money houses. Even the architecture in Widows tells a story, as well it should — the most influential family in architecture is a Chicago one.

In depicting the various ways Veronica is still haunted by Harry’s death, Bobbitt closes in tight on Davis’ face so that her eyelashes are rendered as mere abstraction as she dreams of Harry (Liam Neeson) in bed. The audience becomes a voyeur into the life Veronica and Harry shared in their glass castle on Lake Shore Drive with each flashback. Bobbitt places the camera outside of the Rawlings’ floor-to-ceiling windows so that we may stare at a past embrace as Veronica remembers it.

If this story were an HBO miniseries, McQueen could record a single called “It’s Raining Emmys.”

Widows is a departure for McQueen, whose previous films, Hunger, Shame and 12 Years a Slave, drew much of their power from McQueen’s patience with a single theme and the way he focuses, unblinkingly, on images that make viewers shift uncomfortably in their seats. He is a master of finding the beauty in the disturbing and grotesque.

Widows is filled with wild beauty, heart-thumping grotesquerie and even some good ol’ soapy treachery. The only thing it’s lacking is time.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.