Widows: the battle between plot and film

It feels too easy to reduce Widows down to the unusual battle between mainstream writer Gillian Flynn's script and director Steve McQueen's fine art background being mashed together into a heist film. And yet, sometimes, the easy answers are the right ones. The pairing of Flynn and McQueen looked slightly odd from the start and, post-screening, it still feels like a match that has struggled to gel. There are scenes here that look like early Tarantino; but Flynn does not have the genre nous of Tarantino the writer and McQueen is not as interested in probing genre visuals as Tarantino the director. The result can sometimes end up feeling like a post-Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs film that has not seen Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs.

You can see how the two key behind-the-camera talents here have collaborated to good effect on occasion. Without McQueen, Flynn's script may not have escaped the lure of Gerard Butler as the leading man. Without Flynn you can imagine a scenario where McQueen might have abandoned established heist movie conventions altogether. When the balancing works Widows is impressive. There are a number of scenes where something happens in the background; a chasing car; a passing runner. McQueen foregrounds characters and ups tension in one swoop.

Each one of the three leads (Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez) have clear, if perhaps obvious, motivation. Davis is being chased by mobsters. Debicki pines (or does she?) for her previous life where everything was provided for her. Rodriguez has kids to think of but, more than that, wants to get on and succeed; an early scene where her shop is taken off her because of her husband's debts sets the tone.

The tension in the film boils down to the battle between the plotting and everything else; character, social comment, visuals and more. The plot cannot keep up. Time and time again obstructions are raised for characters to overcome. Then they just disappear. The crew need a driver. Then they have one. 'We need to move like men', Davis says, after Rodriguez has struggled to carry a big pack. The problem is never mentioned again. The group need to understand what some blueprints represent. Then Debicki gets a 'boyfriend' who happens to be able to explain it all. Perhaps, when you come down to it, you could boil most films down into that sort of description, but Widows blatant plot conceits are the sort that grate. If you can't spot who the group are going to need to steal from from very early on then you aren't trying.

McQueen sometimes helps and sometimes hinders. There are tender character moments and quiet scenes that stop the point-by-point movement. But then there's a scene where Davis inadvertently discovers a key reveal, which harks back to something we saw earlier in the film. Not only is the reveal palm-to-face obvious, but McQueen then cuts back to the same scenes we saw earlier in the film, just in case we hadn't got it. It's paint-by-numbers, make-sure-the-audience-is-keeping-up, directing, a world away from Shame or 12 Years A Slave.

The troubles of the film boil down to another late reveal regarding Veronica (Davis) and Rawlings' (Liam Neeson) son. Depicted another way, this could have linked several threads in the film, commenting on social justice and disenfranchisement, the destruction of family (which, admittedly, you can read the film as explicitly being about) and more, as well as providing vital background as to why several characters behave the way they do. Instead it feels throwaway; completely detached from the narrative being told; it does not seem to have huge place here or impact on what we see in the two hour runtime. It summarises an uneven film that is not without vision and emotional character moments - that scene has both - but equally never ties all that it offers together into rounded entertainment or genre-as-comment.

By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.


  1. I saw this at the weekend, and it's safe to say I liked it more than you - this would be a solid 4* from me. I understand what you're saying about the plot conceits, but I think for me the fact that it was a director of McQueen's skill doing a genre picture and doing it well, coupled with a strong cast on excellent form, that meant I just really enjoyed it. I agree with you about the scene involving Veronica's son; it felt a bit too on the nose, when it could actually have been used to better effect with more subtlety.

    1. Not sure if you listen to it but really worthwhile downloading or streaming this episode of FilmSpotting - https://www.filmspotting.net/episodes-archive/2018/11/9/705-widows-bohemian-rhapsody-wildlife

      Adam and Josh's conversation mirrors where we are I think. I normally find my opinions siding with Josh and that's the case here too, but I found some of Adam's arguments convincing. I just couldn't get past a lot of the plot stuff. In a compelling heist movie I want mystery (I'm not good at spotting whoodunnit) and here I knew who had hired Rawlings, what the key twist was and who the Widows were going to have to steal from from really early doors.