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British artist and art-film director Steve McQueen goes semi-mainstream with his somber take on the big cast, big city crime drama, Widows, adapted from a British television mini-series that he loved in his younger days. Very much in the style of Lumet and Pollack, with a dash of Michael Mann’s Heat, the film swings big and mainly connects; it excels in characterizations, and only stumbles when confronted with straight-up genre elements, which McQueen is either least interested in, comfortable with, or both.
Viola Davis leads a small crew of Chicago gangland widows in pulling off a heist left unfinished by her dead husband and his dead gang. They’re a diverse bunch in various stages of grief. Davis is carrying the heaviest heart, and her performance is, unfortunately, enervating and monotonous. But Elizabeth Debicki spectacularly steals the movie – and, I’ll warrant, a huge new stage of her career – with a sublime portrait of a very damaged woman finding her feet by focusing on a fun new project: a heist! I hope a Best Supporting Actress nomination comes her way at Oscar time; she deserves it.
The generous first and second acts build a complex and nefarious world, populated by difficult and complicated people. Besides the female widow crew – rounded out by Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo – there are a bunch of men, all shades of nasty, including Colin Farrell, Liam Neeson, Robert Duvall, and most interestingly Brian Tyree Henry (Paper Boi in Atlanta) and Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out). This is the Lumet-type universe, where a city is sketched in by its power-playing inhabitants, and where crime and the city go hand in hand. The third act, unfortunately, which includes the heist, feels rushed and confused, and the ending left me scratching my head. Thinking back on all of McQueen’s films (I’ve seen them all), endings are not his strongest card. Perhaps he’s simply far more intrigued in examining his characters than saying goodbye to them. Indeed, the closing moments of Widows almost imply a sequel, as odd as that sounds. I’d certainly come back for more.