I saw Steve McQueen’s new film ‘Widows’ last night. Talk about a star-studded cast - Viola Davis, Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall to name a select few. You could smell the prestige seeping from the poster on the foyer wall, the cast boastfully displayed in all their Academy-touted glory. The film itself? A scattershot mess. Bloated, self-congratulatory and lost.
McQueen already has three films under his belt, including award-bothering '12 Years a Slave.’ The man has proven his ability to nail a character arc in the most satisfying of ways, lingering and savouring minute moments which he amplifies to devastating effect. He can turn a facial twitch into a thunderous clap, his scenes prickly with static energy. His brand of cinema is about people, as all good cinema is. It’s a pity, then, that he felt compelled to stuff so many of them into ‘Widows.’
When I see Davis at her snotty and tear-stricken best, I want to stick with her, feel her pain. Instead, the audience is whip-panned to the next scene, sporting a spittle-flecked Duvall chewing up scenery in a late-career best. Can we stay with him, then, Mr McQueen? Absolutely not, he replies in this forced, imaginary exchange, because now it’s time to jump to another strand of disparate plot where the criminally underused Daniel Kaluuya will imitate a cliche hood gangster, for your viewing pleasure. Or not.
The most confusing aspect of this film is how far McQueen allows his plot to sag. Like Pavarotti jumping into a hammock, the story goes from slow and steady to spelling out every detail of the central ‘heist’ with little subtlety. It also has a tendency to allow characters to spout exposition one minute, and clumsily obfuscate plot the next. It’s almost as if McQueen couldn’t decide what to do, so had a go at making two films; a slow-burn ensemble drama and a broad crime thriller. You have to pick one or the other, you can’t do both.
In his early films ‘Hunger’ and ‘Shame,’ McQueen took time to allow his character (both times Michael Fassbender) to unravel before the viewer. By the end, you felt like you had lived with this character, but mostly importantly you felt as if their world would continue running beyond the final frame. In ‘Widows,’ characters too often feel like an excuse to drive a poorly-executed plot, and as the lights go up their world fizzles out. A mile wide and an inch deep, this was a sore disappointment.