Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn (screenplay), Lynda La Plante (creator)
Starring Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, and Cynthia Erivo
Running time 2 hours 9 minutes
MPAA rating: R
by Jaime Davis, The Fixer
I’ve seen all the (Danny) Ocean movies, even reviewed the lady Ocean movie for MJ. I’ve watched and rewatched a lot of heist pics, mostly contemporary ones, like the remake of The Italian Job, Inception, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, and the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair. None of these films are particularly great? Or grounded in realism, preferring to bask in all the slick cool you’d expect from the genre. But none of them, not even The Great Cate’s Eight, made me feel more alive, more proud and in awe of all my power as a woman, than Steve McQueen’s Widows.
Desperation is the driving force behind the main crime in Widows, pulled off by the titular widows. Viola Davis is the perfect combination of steely and vulnerable as Veronica, burying her husband Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), who died during a job gone wrong along with the rest of his crew. The opening shots of Veronica and Harry passionately kissing in bed are intercut with that final job’s final moments - the scenes from the heist so jarring and off-putting, a gritty hook spearing the audience so quickly, afixing you to the story for the rest of the film’s two intense hours. Some reviews have made special mention of the shock of seeing an interracial couple kissing onscreen. Yes, the way they’re kissing is not…chaste. These are not typical sterile Hollywood kisses. But ummmmmmm…have you not seen any Cheerio’s or Tide commercials in the last five years? Interracial couples in film and television are not a new thing, nor should they be seen as such. But don’t let that distract you - Widows is not about an interracial marriage. It’s about the lengths women (not just our featured widows) must go through to survive.
Veronica, as an executive for the local teacher’s union, hasn’t been privy to her husband’s work in the past. But she has benefited from the life his work could afford them. She lives in a beautiful high rise on Chicago’s North Loop, has a beautiful dog straight out of those Cesar dog food commercials (a West Highland White Terrier) named Olivia (a subtle nod to the lead character on How To Get Away With Murder’s sister show, Scandal? Probably not, but I thought it was cute nonetheless). Her clothes are impeccable, her driver, Bash, always loyal and on time. But it’s all a lie, and her time is running out. Meanwhile in a tougher ward on the South Side, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry, fantastic), a known crook, is challenging Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell, another too-good performance) for Alderman of their ward, a position that’s been in the Mulligan family (and pockets) for 60 years. Jamal sees an opportunity to streamline and legitimize the more unsavory of his business dealings through being Alderman, despite his brother Jatemme’s (a frightening Daniel Kaluuya) initial questioning of the career switch. The election is looking to be rigged somehow by the Mulligan family, who were able to get the election date pushed up through some kind of loophole / called-in favor. Besides being down a bit in the polls, Jamal has other shit on his mind - because the night Harry Rawlings and his crew blew up, they stole $2 million of Jamal’s money - and it went up in flames with them.
So, naturally, Jamal pays a friendly visit to Veronica’s pied-å-terre in the sky. And he tells her she has one month to come up with the $2 million or…well, you know. Veronica doesn’t have that kind of money - Harry hasn’t left her a stash of anything, no money hiding in an illicit storage facility or safety deposit box. She’s already living on borrowed time - the clothes, the driver, the apartment - it’s all going to go away in a second, and she can’t trust the cops. Harry may not have left her any cash, but he did leave her his notebook, outlining all of the plans for his previous jobs, along with detailed plans for his next con. If Veronica carries it out successfully, $5 million could be hers. She knows she can’t do it alone, so she enlists the help of fellow recent widows Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez). Both are fighters in their own right; one’s been a caged animal pretty much her entire life, the other is more familiar with desperation than Veronica. Eventually they bring the effervescent Belle (Cynthia Erivo) into their group as a driver, and that’s when the action really kicks off. Belle is a silver bolt of energy - after working all day in a salon she rushes, literally running to catch a bus to babysit other people’s children instead of being with her own, because she has to. The entrance of Belle really gives a jolt to the story and the ensemble of women at the heart of the film, and I wish she was introduced sooner. British Broadway star Cynthia Erivo, who audiences loved in this year’s Bad Times at the El Royale, commands every scene she’s in; her Belle is the type of woman you’d want on your side when you need someone the most. She only shares a handful of scenes with Viola Davis, but there’s an electric, unspoken moment between them that made me wish for a movie starring just the two of them, playing off each other’s quiet grace and strength.
I saw Widows at TIFF this year with Rosalie from Moviejawn and I’m so glad we were able to get tickets for it. It was top on my list, having seen 12 Years a Slave about five years prior at TIFF and catching an impassioned Q&A afterwards with director Steve McQueen. Sadly there was no Q&A after Widows, but that ended up being okay. Rosalie and I were elated, empowered, but also physically shaken. The film’s twists, turns, ups, and downs had us a bit turned up, and we needed a stiff drink to chill the fuck out. The second time I saw Widows was at a screening in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago and the audience was living for it. This is a movie best seen in the theater, not just for the energy coming from the big screen, but also for the zeal you’ll get being a part of the hooked-in crowd.
It’s probably to your advantage that you don’t learn too much about the plot before seeing it - there are two twists in the film - one biggie that had the audience gasp and yell at the screen during both showings I saw. The other is smaller but packs a powerful punch of glee - the audience cheered both times I watched. Based on the six-part British television crime drama of the same name written and created by Lynda La Plante of Prime Suspect fame, the screenplay crackles with plot intensity, fiery dialogue, and fully realized human characters. You want to go into this film blind to the more nuanced aspects of the plot - please don’t ruin this for yourselves.
My favorite part of the film is the heist itself, but my second favorite part is just before our widows go through with it. Veronica is giving the ladies some serious perspective - it’s an anti-pep talk the likes of which Coach Taylor or Danny Ocean never gave. With a slight nod to the Ocean’s films, Veronica tells her partners, “We got to start thinking like professionals. We’re in business together. There’s not going to be some cozy reunion. After this job, we’re done. We have three days to look and move like a team of men. The best thing we have going for us is being who we are.” To which Alice asks, “Why?” It’s “Because no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.” As someone who’s personally tired of being overlooked, undermined, and demeaned simply for being a woman, this exchange invigorated me. Our heroines may not be dripping in sequins and fancy gowns, snarking their way through a Met Gala heist. No, Widows is way more than that. It’s strong, smart, emotional, creative, nurturing…a lot like a woman can be.