You’ll have to forgive me. It’s been nearly three weeks since I initially saw Widows. Immediately after the screening, I felt very positively about the film, which I thought leveraged some really great technical filmmaking and a game cast to offset a messy script with too many threads and a pretty weak late-game twist. But in the following weeks, I’ve found myself hardly thinking about the film. So when tasked to draft up a review, it was difficult to really come up with many words about Widows, which I still think is a fine film, but I’m much less certain of all its merits with all this distance between that initial viewing.
Maybe that’s incredibly telling. In a recent discussion with FilmFisher editor Timothy Lawrence, we had talked about how there’s a lost importance in allowing a film time to gestate before dissecting it through reviews. In my own experiences with film studies, my initial reactions to films are often shaped and sharpened after a further exploration of the source material, whether it’s through scholarly reading or by writing papers. The world of film criticism would certainly be a different beast were critics allowed to sit with the films they watched before having to draft up a review. But alas, that’s not how things work, and this is an industry run by the adage “better to strike while the iron’s hot.” I say all of this to infer that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to discern the quality of a film from a review alone. In the moment, a film like Widows works pretty well, but upon further contemplation, it’s actually rather forgettable.
That brings up a whole other problem. Recently, it seems like films have been developed and designed to play into labels and markers. For example, Ocean’s Eight is the female heist film. It does absolutely nothing new with the genre other than having an ensemble cast of talented female actors, and yet that alone seems to merit praise despite the film’s mediocre quality. Widows, for lack of a better term, sort of feels like the serious heist film, about important topics such as race, the economy, and gentrification. And yet, Steve McQueen’s film doesn’t really do much with the heist film formula to shake things up and it still received heaps of praise because it has the faintest whiff of social commentary. That’s the issue with Hollywood today. It’s an industry run by uncreative businessmen who are impeding upon the creative integrity of the cinematic art form by forcing it to be distilled down to labels and checklists. Evan Stewart recently mentioned that he believes The Other Side of the Wind signaled “the end of cinema,” and given the current state of things in the film industry, it’s hard not to believe that claim.
It’s also horribly unfair to dilute a film down to pinpoints like that. It disallows for genuine storytelling or meaningful theme work. Just because a film has whiffs of social topics or meaningful commentary that feel pertinent today doesn’t mean it’s done in a way that’s very deep. Widows feels like that, although to a lesser extent than other films that have come out this year that thrive on being about “hot-button issues” without ever saying anything meaningful in the process. For filmmakers, the knowledge that your film will only be made if it fits a quota or a criterion imposed by profits or its awards potential is horribly restricting. Just look at the myriad of Marvel films that all feel atonal and cookie cutter. Many of them are directed by some honest-to-goodness great directors, but their authorial stamp has been scrubbed out in a bid to make sure every frame has been tailored by studio mandates and will appeal to everyone in the family. Never mind story. Never mind characters. Never mind genuine emotions. This is what filmmaking today has become, and I think film criticism has a role to play in that, because it furthers the studio’s desires to try and perfectly mold everything lest they be torn asunder by snap decisions and quick, acerbic writing.
Anyway, I’ve stalled enough on talking about Widows, even if it ultimately falls victim to the things I’ve brought up beforehand. Somehow, through it all, the film remains good. Based on the 1983 British mini-series of the same title, McQueen and author Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects) have updated that socially-conscious story to fit in an equally socially-conscious twenty-first century setting. The decision to base the film in Chicago is actually an inspired one, and it allows the film to visually showcase its desired themes of social inequality, economics, racism, and gentrification in a way that feels primed rather than overstated. It’s also got the benefit of a fantastic cast, each of whom puts in some serious work that often elevates their paper-thin characters.
The problem is that for all of the good things Widows does, it never quite gels together like it probably should. In adapting this property from a mini-series, which allowed for multiple perspectives to develop over the course of many episodes, this film takes too many subplots and tries to force them into a feature length setting that can’t quite accommodate all of them. It’s not for a lack of trying. There’s certainly a sense of ambition here that’s admirable. The film not only focuses on the heist that the widows attempt to finish in their husbands’ absence, but also on a political race split by social status and race. Everything is connected, but not everything gets its due. The political race in particular is shortchanged. It has a conclusion that feels inevitable, but for all its strengths (Colin Farrell is a delight), it feels like background noise to the real story, about the grieving widows.
And that causes another problem: it cuts into the time we get to spend with these women. While Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, and especially Elizabeth Debicki do plenty of interesting things with their performances, the characters they play aren’t quite dimensional enough. The film admirably focuses more on the grieving processes rather than the shopworn heist elements, but it still never goes deep enough, save for Debicki’s character, who has the most notable arc of all the women. There are good moments scattered here and there as the film explores the women’s lives after their husbands are gone, notably a horrible display of police violence, and a wife regretfully making out with a man she hardly knows just because he’s also widowed. In these moments, the film feels observational, gritty, and real. But it’s too cluttered, needing to keep moving all of its parts, and sometimes it just feels mechanical, no matter how watchable it remains.
That being said, Widows has an incredible sense of place. I haven’t been this absorbed by a film set in Chicago since 1992’s Candyman, a film that also explored gentrification and systemic racism. The best shot in the film has the camera casually showing two different sides of the street, reflected off the windshield of a moving car. The dialogue that happens during the scene is inconsequential. Instead, the stark differences between the left and the right sides of the street are meant to be alarming. On one side, there’s wealth and opulence, the kind of street with white picket fences and perfectly-cut grass. But on the other side, there’s dereliction, poverty, and restriction. These two very different worlds aren’t so far apart, and the film makes subtle remarks about the horror of gentrification, as the wealthy overtake the poor not just economically, but culturally as well. All the way back in 1992, Candyman was making similar claims about Chicago through the lenses of urban legends that are revealed as disturbing truth, a history hidden behind shame. It’s horrible to see that nearly thirty years later, this is still a problem.
That’s when Widows is at its best, when it’s being subtle about the way America works. When it reverts back to plot-mode, or goes into the heist elements, it just feels too scattered to ultimately be impactful or even totally artful like Michael Mann’s Heat, which you can tell was a major inspiration. Still, Widows has some inspired moments, and the film is incredibly well-made technically, with special emphasis on the camerawork and the sound design. Too often is the film blunt about its intentions, and that’s when it begins to feel like an agenda film, one built by those dreadful labels and checkmarks. Sometimes we need something blunt like a hammer to a nailhead, but it’s something that requires balance and skill. McQueen is a good director, but he often beats the point down into the ground, tiring his audiences rather than enthralling them.