What is ‘Widows’ even about

Everybody thinks she’s the greatest, but how weird would it be at this point to see Viola Davis playing a character who isn’t absolutely horrible to everyone around her? She’s gotten pretty one-note lately. Images courtesy 20th Century Fox.

4/10 I’m still not actually sure what happened in Widows.

The plot is simple enough – I mean, it’s incredibly needlessly complicated, but I at least understand its contents. Renowned heistmaster Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) is killed on the job, along with his crew. Their prize, $2 million in cash stolen from local crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), burns to ash in the process. That was Manning’s seed money for a campaign to be alderman of Chicago’s south side, and he demands that Rawlings’ widow, Veronica (Viola Davis), pay him back.

Anybody else want to talk about how campaign finance laws are still quite strict, and Manning was already headed for a world of trouble if he was financing a campaign with money that, at any point, had to be stockpiled in a large stealable block of cash? No? I’m literally the only person in the world who cares about that? OK, glad we cleared that up.

Harry left Veronica the plans for his next job, so instead of just giving those plans to Manning to square the debt or even trying to go to the police, she calls together his teammates’ widows, Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki), to perform that job themselves and pay off Manning.

Widows has way too many characters, and they all spend way too much time isolated in their own plot cul-de-sacs, and I don’t know how to feel about any of them.

Widows, which is categorized as a a heist film, spends probably only 30-40 of its 129 minutes on the details of planning and executing its extremely simple heist. The majority of its runtime is spent on lame sideplots like Veronica Rawlings moping about her dead son, Gunner dabbling in upscale prostitution, and Perelli having trouble finding a babysitter – I’m dead serious, that’s a major plotline in this movie. Also, Manning’s opponent in his campaign for alderman is Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who is the son of longtime seat holder Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall), who is really old and racist, and the movie also spends a significant amount of time on this.

It’s not as bad as it sounds. Most plotlines dovetail during or around the end, thematically if not literally. A bigger problem than the overabundance of plotlines is that I just don’t know what to make of any of them.

Take Jack Mulligan. He’s caught between his father, who pressures Jack with his legacy in Chicago politics and his gross racism, and Manning, his rival in both crime and politics. Widows spends both too much and not enough time painting Mulligan as a man who really wants no part of the position he’s in – he gets too much screentime to be a supporting character, but not enough to flesh out his character arc in a satisfying way.

Also, there’s this law that he’s running on the strength of that has Chicago invest in small businesses like a bank using public money to fund predatory loans – it seems like a whole thing, but the movie barely gets into it. It’s another case of spending both too much and not enough time on something. I’m left with a ton of questions about a plot point that doesn’t matter.

The most interesting and most bizarre substory, though, is Gunner’s. She’s physically abused by her husband, and after his death, her mother, who also hits her, encourages her to go into prostitution because she has no other skills. Gunner is offered a choice between descending into whoring or asserting herself through Rawlings’ heist – oh, no, she just goes straight to work on the whoring angle. That’s really sad, she’s been abused by at least two major figures in her life to the point that she doesn’t think she can be or do anything else, it’s clearly a real lowpoint – oh, no, she seems to be enjoying it. I was thinking that her participation in the heist crime would bring her character from the valley of prostitution to the mountaintop of not prostitution, but she’s found a real estate developer who pays her four figures a lay, and they really seem to like each – oh, no, she’s asserting herself through heist participation just like I thought she was going to.

It’s extremely weird to see that David (Lukas Haas), her transactional boyfriend who she was driven to by physical, emotional and financial abuse, is the only person in the movie Gunner interacts with who doesn’t hit her or force her to do things she doesn’t want to do, and that includes Rawlings. Veronica Rawlings’ treatment of her cohorts throughout the film is condescending at best, but more often it crosses into verbal abuse and blackmail. It’s tough to root for the kind-of protagonist when she’s the least sympathetic and least charismatic character in the movie.

More than that, Rawlings is the only character who doesn’t have another completely different plotline going on, and she’s the only one who really wants to follow through on the main heist plot. If Widows is a white elephant party, she’s the one insisting that everybody cut off their fun conversations and actually play white elephant.

Daniel Kaluuya, playing Jamal Manning’s brother and enforcer Jatemme, is just the greatest. His were the only parts of the movie that I wasn’t trying to relate back to the main plot because I was enjoying them so much.

I’ve scoured the Internet for a thematic connection between the disparate plotlines, but it just doesn’t look like there is one. Some critics have theorized that Widows as a whole is a meditation on racial and gender power dynamics, and those dynamics obviously exist in this world, but the movie is dominated by women and black people. The narrative’s crusty old white guy, Tom Mulligan, is already retiring and seems to have been otherwise irrelevant for quite some time, and his son isn’t particularly interested in inheriting his father’s power or racism.

I’ve seen an argument that it’s an examination of the desperation that would drive the widows to a violent heist like this, but that doesn’t fit the narrative either. Following the heist through is the only plan Veronica Rawlings puts real effort into, and nobody else particularly seems to want to help. The only thing Perelli and Gunner are desperate to do is get Rawlings off their back.

Writer/director Steve McQueen has said himself in interviews that he sympathized with the ladies of the 1993 BBC miniseries because they were accomplishing a heist that no one expected them to be able to do, and as a black kid from London, he sees his film career the same way. That a reading kind of works if you squint a little and ignore significant chunks of the movie.

None of this goes toward answering the key question of whether or not Widows is any good, but in order for a movie to be good, it has to have something it’s trying to be good at. It’s tough to give notes on something when I’ve got no idea what the author was going for in the first place. There’s plenty to appreciate about the film, but I can’t recommend a movie that I came away from wondering what I was supposed to have just watched.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and managing editor of The Lewisville Texan Journal. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook,  follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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