WIDOWS Review: Feminism, Michael Mann-Style

Many heist films are predicated on the execution of the job their heroes - or, more commonly, anti-heroes - are assembled to complete, the joy of which arriving in the discovery of the mechanisms put into place for the heist and how they twist and turn and crack than the actual success therein. The job in Widows is fairly straightforward, the heroines gifted a literal instructional map to follow and materials to acquire. Little is needed in the way of preparation, merely willing participants to carry it out. Instead, Widows invests the usual ingenuity into weaving a sprawling web of political corruption, social hierarchies, and racial divisions that both drive and are perpetuated by the circle of crime. Much like the plans carefully laid slick crews of charismatic rogues, whatever actual game the film has going is only slowly revealed by the very nature of its execution.

The electrifying opening sequence perfectly introduces audiences to the lives of each of the titular characters. A scene of domestic bliss between Harry Rollins (Liam Neeson) and trophy wife Veronica (Viola Davis) smash cuts into a frenzied shootout and getaway. Harry is the leader of a crew of thieves, and this latest job is going very, very badly, culminating in a horrific, explosive death for the whole gang. Between the gunshots, we get glimpses into the lives they’re leaving behind. The small business owned by Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) is in danger of going under from her husband’s gambling debts. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) is caught in an abusive marriage, encouraged to hide the black eye her husband’s dealt her because it makes him sad to look at it. Amanda (Carrie Coon) and her newborn are left perpetually alone by her spouse. Each brief scene condenses volumes of personal history into mere seconds that are miraculously clear in definition.

The deaths of their providers leave holes in each of the women’s lives, left with few options and resources. The situation worsens when the local gangster Harry and his crew ripped off (Brian Tyree Henry) comes looking for the $2 million that burned up along with their deceased partners. Threatened with murder if she doesn’t return the cash, Veronica gathers the other women to conduct the last job Harry set up according to the detailed plans left in his notebook.

Director Steve McQueen is known for his muscular, intense arthouse dramas, having rendered harrowing depictions of Irish prison hunger strikes, sex addiction, and American slavery. His talents and fixations immediately present themselves befitting of a pulp sensibility. With the help of co-writer Gillian Flynn, no stranger to intelligently lurid genre fiction, McQueen successfully delivers his most conventional film to date. That’s not a diss against Widows, however, as its genre trappings, engaging as they are in their own right, belie a very particular and distinct set of thematic concerns involving power and who gets to hold it.

Steve McQueen

Viola Davis
Elizabeth Debicki
Michelle Rodriguez
Cynthia Erivo
Colin Farrell
Brian Tyree Henry
Daniel Kaluuya
Carrie Coon
Jacki Weaver
Robert Duvall
Liam Neeson

Screenplay by
Gillian Flynn &
Steve McQueen

Take Veronica, who holds onto what little semblance of control she has left in her commanding stoicism. Her grief is only seen in private, a haunting bellow escaping before the funeral paired with wistful gazes out over downtown Chicago, wishing for her husband to wrap his arms around her again. The knowledge that she doesn’t actually own any of the markers of her wealthy lifestyle creates an outward symbol of her precarious position, one that has to be hidden by the determination and seriousness with which she approaches the impending job. Davis walks the line between the two sides of Veronica beautifully, often providing the sense that one crack may let slip her intimidating facade, even as she dominates whatever room she inhabits.

McQueen is known for his skill with actors, and as such Davis isn’t the only standout of a truly stacked cast. Any one of the ensemble could be singled out as top of the class, but Elizabeth Debicki may be the performance that sticks most in the mind. Alice undergoes her own transformation, as her domineering mother (Jacki Weaver) suggests she take up high end prostitution in order to pay her bills. Entering into an arrangement with a more gentle but equally possessive playboy, she becomes required to reject the dynamic she’s been forced into, living up to her towering stature.

As the planning commences, with Veronica, Linda, and Alice scrambling to gather weapons, transportation, and surveillance with their bare wits and ingenuity, Flynn and McQueen create more commentary in demonstrating the differences between the women. Wealth, class, and race all come into play in terms of advantage and influence in the group, highlighting the differences and tensions between each character. Only Alice, a white woman, could get away with walking up to a random person at a gun show, posing as an illegal immigrant needing a gun for protection in order to acquire untraceable weapons. A late addition to the crew (Cynthia Erivo, proving her confident work in Bad Times at the El Royale was no fluke) underscores the class disparity as Belle, a single mother forced to ditch her own kids to babysit for extra cash. From the moment she enters the room with Veronica, the two have little to say to one another; though they share a skin tone, their experiences and difficulties couldn’t be more different.

The script spirals out into the political realm in a way that would feel overwhelming if its ideas weren’t so fully and concisely articulated. The heist plot plays out on the backdrop of dueling campaigns for a local alderman race. Colin Farrell plays the son of the career politician whose family has held the position for decades, and feels he’s owed the office despite his lack of regard for the neighborhood, largely comprised of the poor and minorities. A redrawing of the ward puts his shoe-in status into question, as Brian Tyree Henry’s gangster challenges him for the seat, backed up by his sociopathic, violent brother played by Daniel Kaluuya. An Anton Chigurh-esque spirit of carnage, Kaluuya’s penetrating stare is scarier than most ghouls you’ll see in a horror film this year, making him a brilliant villain. The struggle for power plays out between the man scrabbling to maintain his power for the status that comes with it, the other aspiring for his own selfish betterment.

Widows has quite a lot on its mind, but its lofty societal points complement its genre elements rather than weighing them down. The film plays like a lost Michael Mann picture if he’d spent some time studying intersectional feminism, and would certainly rank among the best of Mann’s career had he made it. McQueen has spent a career creating wrenching dramas that would be considered the best of any other director’s output, and he does it with seemingly astonishing ease. He manages to communicate so much with so little, as in the case of a limo ride shot from the hood of the car, a simple pan across the windshield melting the scenery from the poverty-stricken projects to the upper-middle class mansions, contrasted against its passenger’s racist screed. Widows is excellent adult-minded entertainment, and likely the first of McQueen’s films you’ll actually want to watch again.

Widows is currently playing in theaters everywhere.