‘Widows’ Film Review: Viola Davis, Steve McQueen Team Up for a Curious Heist Movie

Davis leads a gang forced to pull off a complex theft, but her director is more interested in obsessions than robberies

Courtesy of TIFF

If you’re looking for a curious combination of filmmaker and subject matter at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, look no further than Steve McQueen’s “Widows,” which had its world premiere at the festival on Saturday.

McQueen, best known for the 2013 Oscar Best Picture winner “12 Years a Slave,” is an exacting British artist and film director drawn to obsession and control. He’s made films about slavery, the Irish hunger strike in a British prison (“Hunger”) and sex addiction (“Shame”).

But “Widows” is a heist movie, based on a British miniseries about four women who plot and pull off a robbery after their husbands are killed attempting another job.

Heist movies, one would think, need to have a little fun in them, and McQueen is not a man who puts much fun into his movies. From the evidence of his filmography, he is enthralled by the extremes of human behavior and uncompromising in the way he documents those extremes.

And while “Widows” can be powerful and dramatic, the director doesn’t seem all that interested in the complicated heist that is theoretically driving the plot. This isn’t Steven Soderbergh delighting in the intricacies of the vault break-in in “Ocean’s Eleven”; McQueen is far more interested in how desperate these people are and in the level of corruption and despair that has led them here.

That’s a reasonable thing for McQueen to be interested in, of course, especially when he’s exploring it with the help of a powerhouse cast headed by Viola Davis and also including Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Liam Neeson and Robert Duvall. But it also feels like a missed opportunity, given that the plot hinges on heist-flick standbys like sudden snafus, double crosses and chase scenes.

Davis plays Veronica, a cultured upper-class woman whose life is thrown into turmoil when her husband (Neeson) is killed along with three colleagues pulling off an armed robbery. The money was presumably blown up along with the gang, leaving Veronica in debt to some very angry and very vicious gangsters, one of whom also happens to be running for office in the famously corrupt city of Chicago.

Facing the loss of everything she has, Veronica locates the notebook in which her hubby has helpfully written out every detail of his next heist, and then convinces three other widows that they should take a crash course in robbery. And then complications ensue — but you knew they would, didn’t you?

The action includes the usual assortment of implausibilities, but the details are less important — to McQueen for sure, and because of that to the audience — than the glimpses of lives in perpetual panic, or of corruption so deep and pervasive that no one can ever escape it.

The heist is the film’s centerpiece, which means “Widows” plays like McQueen doing genre, not McQueen making a statement. The problem is that the genre he’s doing requires a lighter touch than he supplies — and if those car chases and double crosses aren’t at least a little fun, the action turns into a slog. A polished, dramatic slog, maybe, but a slog nonetheless.

Davis is typically fine, though “Widows” is unlikely to occupy as much real estate on her career-achievement clip packages than “Fences” or “Doubt” or “The Help.” Rodriguez, Debicki and Cynthia Erivo make for a team you can root for, even if you never really believe they can do what they’re doing.

On the male side, Neeson has enough gravitas that his very presence constitutes a kind of spoiler. And Farrell and Duvall serve as one side of the brutally corrupt coin, with Daniel Kaluuya and Brian Tyree Henry as the other.

“Widows” works as an example of Steve McQueen bending the genre to his particular obsessions. But it may also leave you hoping that he forgets about ill-fitting genres and goes back to a film where he can care about the whole story, not just part of it.