‘Widows’ is An Intellectual Heist Meditation For Our Times
This review contains spoilers.
Viola Davis is a perfect actor. She evokes just the right amount of emotion each scene requires without spilling over into melodrama. She is elegant, like a rose emerging in the midst of a busy highway and leaving a light fragrance wherever she turns, no matter what movie she’s in. So the idea that she might get to be delightfully subversive for a change, to be imperfect, to escape the politics of respectability for a moment on the big screen as she has done on the small screen, was what drew me to see “Widows.”
Davis delivers a perfect performance in this not-quite-accurately portrayed heist film as Veronica Rawlings, wife to Chicago criminal Harry Rawlings (played by Liam Neeson [so mad at Key & Peele for making me think of his last name in the plural, damn you!]), which turns out to be the thing that, uh, shoots the movie in the foot, even while it is also the most thrilling.
The elephant in the room here, the backdrop even if I would rather not be cognizant of it, is that everything — from the movie poster to the palette of the movie and much of Veronica’s wardrobe, to segregated Chicago — is cast in Black and white terms. There is, too, the word widow and the rich depth of Viola’s blackness at the center of this Steve McQueen-directed and Gillian Flynn-written screenplay which will turn out to be an interesting conundrum indeed.
But even if you don’t think about race or intersectionality or the faultlines which inevitably will come to bear on the lives of the main female characters in this film, it helps to remember how we think of this word widow in our culture. There is a sinister and sexy insinuation that comes with the Black Widow of the Marvel universe that must be put aside, along with the connotation of a female serial killer sociopath that I just learned about. Then there’s the spider of the same name, a symbol of creativity that flourishes in darkness, so named for a violent ritual that involves female spiders devouring their mates afterwards.
The promise of the film, as I understood it, would offer me something closer to the first notion, something like a more elegant “Ocean’s 8.” But what I left “Widows” thinking about was more of the latter — how creative women have to be to spin worlds, especially those that necessarily have to destroy the men they love in the service of saving themselves.
“Widows” opens, as Davis has mentioned in junkets and interviews, was a revolutionary image, even (perhaps especially) in 2018: a dark-skinned, blacker-the-berry Black woman with natural hair is in bed with a handsome white man to whom she is married. Her white husband is not just kissing her, I might add, but tonguing her down, as if her mouth were the most delicious experience he’d ever had.
They both look so happy in the bright white light. It’s daytime when she presents him with a flask. They take shots in the day, and this is a movie, so you know it’s “we love each other so much we drink shots of vodka in the bathroom during the day” drinking not alcoholism.
We are being shown how these two break all the rules together when the scene cuts to things unraveling quickly in a heist. Men in a white van, police on their tail, on a freeway. Everything has gone left quickly, folks are shouting, Harry is in the driver’s seat. The doors to the van fall off, the police corner the van in their hideout.
Cut to Linda (played by the persistently stoic and sloe-eyed Michelle Rodriguez), who is having an argument with her husband at their store, then Alice, (the statuesque Elizabeth Debicki, who is a standout in more ways than one in part because she is probably the tallest actor in the film at 6’2”) who is watching her husband eat after he’s punched her badly enough to leave a bruise. He’s suggested arrogantly that she put some makeup on it which made this survivor of Intimate Partner Violence want to punch him in the face and talk to him about make up just to be petty.
The husbands all die in the heist-gone-bad.
Cut back to the empty white bed, Veronica’s black hand stretching out across a pillow with longing. Veronica allows herself one moment of relatively violently sad emotion before the funeral when she screams with the only company she has left in the world, her dog, Olivia.
The stakes for Veronica, we are led to believe, are these: Harry owes people money. They want it soon or she’s not going to live. The problem I have with these stakes is that as much as I wanted to believe them, I don’t think I could and I don’t know why. It might be connected to the intersection of race and class and the lack of interrogation of that intersection here, even while the audience is being asked to participate in the suspension of disbelief. One can only go so far.
Though her memories to this point suggest he loved her with a tenderness that is rarely reserved for Black women and not usually from white men, this is demonstrated in the film as she plays Nina Simone and looks out over Chicago from her immaculate penthouse thinking of him one night, imagining him curling up behind her, when the world rushes in.
There’s a knock at the door. It’s Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who is running for city alderman in the 18th ward against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell). Jamal forces himself into the apartment, says that Harry’s death was not sad, except for the fact that it means he owes Jamal $2 million dollars.
Jamal is not nearly as menacing as his brother, Jatemme Manning (Daniel Kaluuya) who is a cunning and expressionless bad guy of the most chilling sort. But he does appear to hold the dog hostage (this is the most action we get early on in the film, I’m afraid, after the death of the husbands) and he tells her she’s got two weeks to get his money back.
The privileges of Harry’s love of Veronica — that is the white male protection that was so elaborately detailed at the outset of the film — are now at risk. This is when I remembered that I have not seen another Steve McQueen movie; when it becomes obvious that a non-American Black man and a white woman created this story that is meant to convey the specificities of a Black American experience authentically but fails because it renders them through generic language and gestures.
In other words, this is not a film that is for me or for Black women, even though a Black woman is very much the excellent star. This is not a surprise or even jarring so much as it creates a bit of a disconnect for the viewer. Here’s where this became apparent immediately: In her interaction with Jamal, Veronica displays a kind of fragility that is only believable (and usually socially allowed) from white women in America — the tears are meant to be evidence of fear for her safety. We know this because she threatens to call the police on Jamal.
Black women, no matter how much money we have or where we are from, when we are afraid, if we are from America, know that the last thing that will protect us from an aggravated Black man who has threatened our safety over money is to invoke the police. Davis, I am sure, had to know that even Veronica’s privileges wouldn’t make her sound as protected in the world by Harry’s white manhood as perhaps the character was written? But also: Given what we will learn later, she seems like the last person who would think of the police as an easy go-to for protection, even to protect herself.
But Veronica gets a break and finds a notebook Harry used to do his illegal jobs. The next big job is worth $5 million — she’ll use it to pay Jamal the $2 million Harry owed him and split the rest with Linda, Alice and the athletic and heroic Belle (played perfectly by the Tony-Award winning Cynthia Erivo, who is the only other person in “Widows” besides Kaluuya who acts like she’s been cast in a heist film).
But Belle has some culturally tone-deaf flaws too — she leaves her children in order to care for Linda’s children initially — but why? She appears to have many jobs, and to need money, but we don’t get more than that.
The only other Black woman in the film with a significant speaking role, Belle and Veronica instantly snipe at one another like they’re enemies. Sometimes, this is how we get down, but in the scenario they’re in, their dialogue would have called for more warmth, more recognition — two Black girls who are trying to win and stay alive and know about surviving hard things would not immediately bicker and grandstand as the clock ticks. We know the value of time. It is always bearing down on us, chasing us.
On more realistic ground, there is the Mulligan family, a legacy name in politics; as Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall) spells out as the sole voice of Old White Male Racists and Sexists in the film (the fate that meets Tom Mulligan is particularly sweet in light of how poorly he behaves, particularly toward women).
Speaking of women, though, it is not clear what Veronica or any of the widows evoked in the title want. Is it revenge for their husbands’ deaths? Freedom? Peace? Resolution? Are they driven by fear? Need? All of it? None of it?
The only thing that connects Veronica, Linda and Alice are the deaths of men who possessed them, or some part of them — which looked like love and may have been. Belle is an addendum to this party.
Speaking of addendums: We learn a bit late in the movie, given the density of the writing, the intensity of the scenes, that Veronica and Harry did have a falling out at least once.
Their biracial son was driving a red Mercedes convertible, arguing with Harry on the phone about something when he got pulled over by police. When his son didn’t put down his phone fast enough and police ordered him to put his hands up, he was murdered.
For this, Harry blames Veronica. If he had picked a white woman to have a baby with, after all, perhaps his son would still be alive.
In the end, we see that Harry decides to do exactly that.
So there’s a way that before Veronica becomes a widow, her marriage dies with her son. We learn, when the flask reappears before the women complete the job, how Harry has turned this story into the ultimate betrayal a woman can experience.
“Widows” is a fascinating intellectual meditation for our times, likely most instructive for men and a curious experience for women. That it turns out that the stunning Black woman was betrayed by a sneaky white man is sort of boring and disappointing, but she gets her revenge, I suppose; At the very least, she gets the money.
The men and their egos are so much more fragile, it turns out, than what we are normally permitted to see — Harry and Jack most of all (In Jack’s case, we don’t even see him get reamed out, but we only get to hear the main woman in his life who in public is always beside or behind him tell him to “man the fuck up.”)
The women may not have clear stakes in this fight, but they show up like they want to win when the time comes — and in the end, it feels like all Veronica wants to do is connect with someone who really sees her and wants to connect back. But Veronica never shows us the hunger or the need she has to survive in the same way as Linda, Alice or even Belle. She delivers killer lines and she cuts a stunning figure, but I was always rooting for the actor and not the character because I know more about Viola Davis than I do about Veronica Rawlings. It doesn’t make “Widows” less successful, it just makes it a different movie than the one I thought I was going to see.