Widows, the new not-just-a-heist movie from the camera of Steve McQueen (it’s his first film since 12 Years a Slave), began life as a miniseries more than 30 years ago. It was an English six-parter, to be precise, and I’m torn about whether it should have remained one. There is something intensely welcome about watching such a rich and sprawling narrative on the big screen, in an era when so much storytelling ambition is migrating to television. At the same time, the movie feels like a would-be Dickensian story from which some crucial parts were cut. It’s solid entertainment, but its ambitions can’t be met within its running time, when even an hour more might have made it great.
The core of the story follows the women of the title, the four wives (and girlfriends) of four thieves, whose husbands go out on a job and end up killed in a shootout with the cops — which inspires their grieving partners to attempt to pull off another heist that the men had drawn up before their deaths. The setting is a wintry Chicago; the key player is Veronica (Viola Davis), who was married to Harry (Liam Neeson), the gang’s leader and mastermind, and whose comfortable life in a posh lakeside high-rise is imperiled by the gangsters whose money Harry stole; they want it back, she doesn’t have it, but she does have his notebook with the next job meticulously planned out . . . and who better to serve as her partners than the other recently bereaved?
Especially since they all have incentives to join the heist. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) thought she owned a clothing store but it turns out her late husband mortgaged it to bookies for his gambling debts. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), a six-foot-three waif, relied on her boyfriend for everything, and it’s either the heist or the escort’s life that her grasping mother keeps pushing on her. And Amanda (Carrie Coon) has a newborn baby and no father to take care of him — though she also has a crucial secret that the astute moviegoer may be able to suss out.
All of this would be enough meat for the meal; as I’ve described it there’s much more here than the wispy character sketches that Ocean’s Eight gave its leading ladies for their stars-go-heisting adventure last summer. But McQueen (who had Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame as his co-writer) isn’t content with four interesting women embracing their inner Dillingers. He’s making a movie about all of Chicago, high and low, and so the story just adds and adds and adds.
It adds an election, to start with, because the gangster whose money disappeared when Harry and his gang were killed is Jamal Manning (the wonderful Brian Tyree Henry of Atlantica), an inner-city hood looking to transition to inner-city alderman. He has a brother and hatchet man played by Daniel Kaluuya from Get Out who still lives by street rules; meanwhile Jamal is prepping for his big debate with Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the scion of a local Irish Catholic political dynasty whose father (Robert Duvall, may he live forever) wants to pass the contested alderman’s seat to his son.
That’s enough material for a second movie right there — but then Widows also adds a raft of complicating characters, from Veronica’s weary driver (Garett Dillahunt) to Alice’s decent-or-is-he sugar daddy (Lukas Haas) to the late addition to the gang, an athletic single-mom hairdresser babysitter getaway driver played by the British singer-actress Cynthia Erivo. Oh, and it adds a flashback to the death of Veronica and Harry’s son, a charmed young Millennial killed in a Black Lives Matter moment by a trigger-happy cop.
This is a lot for a heist movie to carry, and in the end the heist itself is almost an afterthought, an armed stumble through a darkened house rather than the kind of complex artistic feat we’ve come to expect from the “Ocean’s” movies. That’s fine, even an interesting change of pace, and somehow amid all the juggling Widows also finds time for incidental grace notes: Rodriguez’s Linda having a raw encounter with a widower she’s trying to con, Debicki’s Alice posing as a Polish mail-order bride to get help buying guns, a scene in which the camera follows the younger Mulligan’s car as he is driven from the projects to his mansion and you hear his political whinging against the backdrop of the chasm that he’s supposed to straddle.
At the same time there are characters who have no time to register — Coon, a great actress, is wasted — and the only intra-widow relationship that really acquires any heft is the Alice–Veronica combination; meanwhile I resorted to Google afterward to figure out what some of the male plotters were doing, and I’m still not sure.
So Widows deserves praise: It’s big, ambitious, entertaining, grown-up. But it’s ultimately overstuffed, a longer story pushed into the outfit of a two-hour movie, bulging too obviously at the seams.