Widows Is A Brutal, Exhilarating Look At Women’s Power, Wrapped In A Heist Movie

Photo: Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Widows opens with Viola Davis and Liam Neeson in bed, tongues buried deep in each other’s mouths. It’s hot — but that’s not what’s striking. The power of that kiss and that scene, as Davis herself has pointed out, is in its banal domesticity. She’s a Black woman in her 50s, wearing her natural hair, making out with her sexy, white husband. “He’s not my slave owner,” she told the BBC over the weekend in an interview that soon went viral. “I’m not a prostitute. It’s not trying to make any social or political statements. We’re simply a couple in love. And what struck me in the narrative is that I’d never seen it before.”
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That statement applies to the whole of Steve McQueen’s (Shame, 12 Years A Slave) heist thriller, co-written with Gone Girl and Sharp Objects author Gillian Flynn, which takes particular delight in subverting expectations and assumptions about gender, race, class, and crime.
Based on a 1983 British TV series, the plot follows four widows who come together to pull off a heist after their husbands die in a stand-off with the police. There’s Veronica (Davis), whose career criminal husband Harry (Neeson) has left her with a $2 million debt to pay off; Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), whose business has been repossessed by Carlos’ (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) gambling buddies; Alicia (scene-stealer Elizabeth Debicki), now forced to moonlight as a sugarbaby for cash; and Amanda (Carrie Coon), left to care for a four-month old baby alone. (Cynthia Erivo’s charismatic Belle comes in a little later, as a godsend getaway driver.)
The danger of framing a story around widows is that they could be seen through the prism of their loss, one part of a former couple — an extension of their men. Doubly so when it turns out all of them were financially dependent on their partners. But Widows deftly side steps that by establishing the dead men as mostly unworthy of our attention. Their botched job early on in the film is intercut with scenes of their interactions with their wives, and guess what — they suck. (Especially Jon Bernthal’s Florek, who asks Alicia to cover up the bruise he just gave her because it “makes me feel bad to look at that,” and then pokes at it, laughing.) These women aren’t pining for the men they lost so much as they are just trying to get by, and in that vacuum, a powerful collaboration is born.
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As Harry’s widow, Veronica is the de facto leader, but Davis plays her with such ferocity that you sense she would have been in charge anyway. She’s a little terrifying, and hard as nails, except when it comes to her dog, Olivia, the adorable white Westie she carries with her everywhere. Still, Harry paid the bills, and kept his business separate from his home life. None of the women actually own anything — but this heist could change that. Their biggest strength? As Veronica puts it, “No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.”
McQueen and Flynn’s script is multi-layered and complex, painting each character delicately and fully, which is a relief given the powerhouse cast. Each woman gets well-deserved screen time, enough so that we understand why they need the money, and also root for them to get it. Still, it helps that they are by no means the biggest crooks in this story.
Widows’ heist takes place against the backdrop of nepotism in local Chicago politics. An election in the city’s 18th Ward pits Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), a legacy shoo-in, against underdog Jamal Manning (Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry) for the alderman seat. Jack’s father Tom (a particularly surly Robert DuVall) held the seat before him, and his messes are proving hard to clean up — not that Jack’s hands are clean. As for Manning, he’s striving to increase representation of the mostly Black community of the neighborhood, while also craving the financial kickbacks that come with the job. Everyone’s out for a piece of the pie. Unfortunately for Veronica, Harry stole Manning’s slice before he died, and now she owes him.
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Henry is phenomenal in this role, which has him collegially tip-toeing around white power brokers, while wrestling with an undercurrent of vicious self-preservation. But it’s Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya, as Jamal’s brother and enforcer Jatemme, who really steals the show. In a scene where he confronts two men for slacking on the job, he’s charmingly predatory, like a lion playing with his food. Sean Bobbit’s cinematography shines here as the camera follows Jatemme, circling around his prey in an oppressive, claustrophobic way.
The stark inequalities at the heart of the film are palpable throughout, although never more so than in one particular shot, when the lens pans out of a car Jack and his aide are sitting in, discussing his lack of enthusiasm for the campaign, focusing not on them but the changing landscape. In the brief time it takes them to go from a speech to Jack’s home, the scenery evolves, barren concrete and dilapidated buildings giving way to graceful homes with carefully maintained lawns. Even Veronica and Harry’s relationship, which we see more of through flashbacks, centers on this lack of equal footing — more so once we learn the details of a tragedy that tainted their relationship before his death. (The pacing is impressive. As she proved with HBO’s Sharp Objects, Flynn knows how to drop just the right amount of hints for the punch to hit right when she wants it to.)
Widows is an often brutal film, underscored by Hans Zimmer’s thrumming score. But there’s also joy, and playfulness. It’s exhilarating to see women work together it’s clear that even their characters are excited by the novelty of each other’s company. The hardest I’ve laughed in a movie this year is when Linda calls Alicia’s gold bodycon dress “a condom.”
This is a film about women discovering who they want to be now that they’re on their own. In one scene, Alice is sent to buy guns for the heist, and, reluctant to give her ID, she plays on people’s perceptions of her. Tall, and blonde, and with a model physique, she begs a woman for help, giving her a sob story about being a Polish mail-order bride in an abusive relationship. She’s utterly convincing (it’s rooted in truth, after all), and soon gets what she wants. And then, snap, she’s back to herself, shoving a hot dog into her mouth while swaggering out of the building.
That’s the beauty of Widows. Everything you think you know, you don’t.
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