Warning: This story contains spoilers for Widows.
At one point in Ocean’s 8, over pierogies at Veselka in New York’s East Village, Lou (Cate Blanchett) asks Debbie (Sandra Bullock) why she needs to rob the Met Gala. In between bites, Debbie responds, smiling: “Because it’s what I’m good at.”
The women of Widows aren’t good at robbing. In fact, their heist very nearly goes wrong several times along the way. They’re amateurs, desperate women who are forced to steal due to circumstances beyond their control. Like her brother Danny (George Clooney), Debbie Ocean gets off on the thrill of getting away with a job. For Widows’ Veronica (Viola Davis), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Belle (Cynthia Erivo), it’s a matter of survival.
Based on a 1983 British TV series, director Steve McQueen’s follow up to 12 Years A Slave, co-written with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, follows four women forced to pull of a heist after their gangster husbands die in a stand-off with the police. But that’s just one layer of a complex, interweaving narrative, which takes place against the backdrop of a heated local political race for Chicago’s 18th Ward alderman seat. In that sense, Widows isn’t really a heist movie. It’s a meditation on gender, crime, nepotism, corruption and race wrapped in heist clothing. And that genre-agnosticity comes through in the film’s ending.
Widows does follow heist movie convention by signing off with an epilogue montage of what everyone is doing with their money. Usually, this involves flashy cars, beautiful women draping goofy men, and some version of a McMansion. Ocean’s 8 re-appropriated that narrative to a certain extent by showing the feminist version of those flashy aspirations. But Widows goes even further — there’s no ostentatious show of wealth. These women choose stability.
There was approximately $5 million in Jack Mulligan’s (Colin Farrell) safe. Assuming Veronica fulfilled her promise to pay off her husband Harry’s (Liam Neeson) debt to aspiring politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), that leaves her and her co-conspirators $3 million to split four ways. That means they each walk away with $750,000. Pennies compared to the $30 million apiece each woman in Debbie’s crew makes at the end of Ocean’s 8, but enough to change their lives forever.
Linda, whose business was gambled away by her husband at the beginning of the movie, buys back her pageant dress store. It’s nothing fancy — barely more than a warehouse with merchandise placed haphazardly in aisles, but it’s hers. She has enough to ensure that her kids won’t want for anything. She can take risks, and dream big. Belle who moonlights as a babysitter (and now, getaway driver), mainly styles hair at her friend’s salon, and uses her money to help the latter get out of debt. She’s been paying weekly cuts to the Mulligan family for the privilege of owning a business in the 18th ward. But with this money, the two can work to grow the salon, on their own terms. Likewise, Veronica uses some of her money for altruistic purposes, handing over a bag of cash to endow a school building in her late son’s memory. Alice, who’s been having to make ends meet by signing up for a Sugar Daddy website, is finally freed from the burden of using her body to survive financially. Instead, she trades in her bandage dresses and heels for a cozy sweater, learns to drive, and makes a lady friend.
It’s easy to see why one would feel the urge to compare Widows to Ocean’s 8. They’re both movies starring women who are taking things that aren’t theirs. But while the latter is a fantasy, an aspirational lifestyle caper, the former shows an infinitely more cruel, but ultimately satisfying narrative: women clawing their way through a world that’s rigged against them from the start.
There’s a power imbalance at every level in Widows. It’s apparent in the way Mulligan assumes that Manning, poised to become the first Black alderman in predominantly Black neighborhood, will simply withdraw and concede because he asks him to; it's also in Linda’s remarks to Veronica, who’s frustrated at having to make compromises because of the other’s financial strains and childcare needs. “Our lives are more complicated than yours,” she says. It’s not a judgement, but a statement based on fact. Veronica lives in a penthouse apartment with a driver; Linda has two kids, no job and a mother-in-law who hates her. And still, both of them are less powerful than someone like Farrell’s millionaire, Mulligan, a product of white privilege and nepotism.
Even in this final happy-ish scenario, McQueen drives the point home. On the radio, we learn that Jack Mulligan has won the alderman’s seat, due to an overwhelming wave of sympathy over his father’s violent death. He’ll make back the corrupt, stolen money he lost, and then some. The widows haven’t changed the system, they’re just a little more comfortable within it.