Every day, women are robbed of respect, independence and opportunity… but Steve McQueen’s thriller satisfyingly shows them taking it back.
It annoys me to see Widows described as a ‘heist film’, and even as an ‘all-female heist film’. It annoys me to read reviews that chide director Steve McQueen for shoehorning social commentary into an action thriller, or to hear that Widows is too earnest and self-serious, too diffuse and not focused enough on its central heist.
For me, the strength of this film is its refusal to depict that robbery as an isolated event. Heist films frequently take place in settings so rarefied as to feel fantastical, where robbery is a profession, or at least a cleverly executed stunt. But in Widows, robbery is something shabby and ordinary, embedded in our social fabric as sexual, racial and class disempowerment. Theft happens every day… and these women are sick of being stolen from.
Heist films are thrilling because they stage fantasies of hyper-competence. In a typical heist caper, a crew of professional criminals, each with their particular set of skills, plans a challenging theft from a heavily guarded location. Viewers are invited to delight in the recruitment of the team and careful rehearsal of the heist, and the criminals’ resourceful on-the-fly problem solving during the job.
The genre’s pleasure also comes from its use of deception and misdirection. The fictional job itself requires bystanders to be fooled, and its success is perpetually under threat from conflict or treachery among the thieves. Moreover, the way we — the audience — are shown the heist often mirrors the consummate illusions of stage magic and special effects. Some heist films even follow practitioners of physical illusion, as in F/X (Robert Mandel, 1986), Now You See Me (Louis Leterrier, 2013) and its 2016 sequel, and the Mission: Impossible film cycle.
Widows has been compared with Ocean’s Eight (Gary Ross, 2018), a straight gender-flip of a completely conventional caper. But McQueen’s film, co-scripted with Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects), literally explodes the heist genre’s fantasy of hyper-competence in its opening minutes, as the gang of thieves led by Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) meets a fiery end. Instead, this film shows that a thief’s most useful skill is her ability to notice details, and her ultimate disguise is a man’s condescension.
Harry’s wife Veronica (Viola Davis) is shocked when Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), the gangster-turned-political-aspirant whose money Harry had stolen — and, inadvertently, incinerated — prowls uninvited into her luxurious apartment. In an unsubtle metaphor, he manhandles Veronica’s pampered lapdog, demanding his missing $2 million within a month. “You’re nothing now,” he tells Veronica.
Meanwhile, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), the young widow of thuggish Florek (Jon Bernthal), is bullied by her mother Agnieszka (Jacki Weaver) into becoming an escort, and begins a transactional but no less obligation-filled ‘girlfriend experience’ with David (Lukas Haas). And Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) is left unable to provide for her kids after her quinceañera dress boutique is repossessed to cover gambling debts left by her husband Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo).
What makes Widows such an entertaining feminist caper is watching its characters realising that social skills — devalued because they’re feminised — are actually heist skills. After Veronica discovers Harry’s notebook, which meticulously details his next planned heist, she reaches out to her fellow widows — just seeing how they’re coping with their loss! — to carry out the job. They meet at a day spa — just a girls’ get-together! — and when the fourth widow, Amanda (Carrie Coon), drops out, Linda exploits her own network to recruit her babysitter, Belle (Cynthia Erivo), as their getaway driver.
Belle, who runs to catch buses through a shitstorm of catcalls, can case the outside of a building while disguised as a jogger. As a respectable delegate from the teacher’s union, Veronica can case the inside. Alice exploits libidinous mansplainers, and gets help buying guns by pantomiming her own domestic abuse. Linda wheedles crucial intel from a receptionist by speaking to her pleadingly in Spanish, appealing to their shared precarity. They train to lug the cash using homemade Tupperware weights. A child’s toy becomes the voice-disguising mask worn during the heist.
Age, class and race separate these women; and the film is stronger for noticing this, refusing to scurry past the group’s tensions in pursuit of ‘you-go-girl’ solidarity. Nor does it succumb to sexist ideas of bitchy competition among women. One moment that’s stuck with me is when Veronica catches the others talking shit about her, but the fraught instant passes and the preparation continues. Veronica, Linda, Alice and Belle might not always agree with, understand or like each other, but they realise they’re stronger together.
By contrast, Daniel Kaluuya’s much-praised performance as Jamal’s vicious brother and enforcer, Jatemme, felt like generic machismo to me. He has that same old criminal hyper-competence that depends, predictably, on guns, knives and physical intimidation. Seeing Jatemme eyeballing one of his victims from an inch away is nowhere near as powerful as seeing Veronica incandesce with rage, Linda save herself from drowning in grief, or Alice realise at last that this is her life — that she belongs to nobody but herself.
It’s deliberate, not distracting, that Widows broadens its focus from the heist itself to explore the social, economic and political background against which it occurs. A frequently cited comparison for this kind of situated social critique is the TV series The Wire. But let’s not forget that in Gone Girl, Flynn was interested in more than melodrama. In a wasteland of abandoned McMansions, rotting malls and trailer parks, Flynn’s characters took desperate and unscrupulous action because they were economically trapped and humiliated.
Nor is Widows a stylistic departure for its director. The strength of McQueen’s films has always been their moments of fraught stillness. Think of Shame, in which he switches between sticky closeups of siblings Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, replicating their traumatised bond. Or a hanged Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave, tiptoeing desperately in the mud as plantation life continues calmly around him.
The way this stillness encourages the viewer to observe, to scan the frame, might appear to be at odds with the kinetic demands of the heist genre. But Widows is packed with moments that allow us to notice women’s debts to men. McQueen and Flynn let us realise things as the characters do.
We see local political candidate Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) smugly boasting at a local campaign rally about helping fund small businesses run by black women, then pettishly ranting to his female staffer on the drive back to his mansion. We see Jack’s dad Tom (Robert Duvall), the retiring local politician, casually demean the same staffer. We also see Belle, who works as a hairdresser in a salon supported by Jack’s scheme, noticing a Mulligan standover man bullying her boss.
And we see Veronica’s painstaking self-extrication from the illusions of her pampered former life. In flashbacks and early scenes, we see how Harry lavishes her with physical affection, and how their driver, Bash (Garret Dillahunt), treats her with deferential courtesy. We notice her designer clothes and jewellery, her queenly bearing. And as she organises the heist, McQueen weaves in more flashbacks and fraught encounters that force Veronica to re-evaluate her marriage as an emotional debt borne solely by her. We see how dearly she has bought her fond memories.
When Veronica tells her female colleagues that “nobody thinks we’ve got the balls to pull this off”, she’s not just talking about the way women’s skills or courage get underestimated. Her point is that we live in a society where women — and particularly working-class women, immigrants and women of colour — are embedded in systems of dependence.
Even if you’re as smart and poised as Veronica, as hard-working as Linda and Belle, and as hopeful as Alice, you can find yourself mired in obligation — and blaming yourself for it. Men — and particularly male critics — don’t appreciate this predicament because they’re blinded by gender privilege. Their ‘balls’.
Widows is a film about what it takes to free oneself from this debt. Its robbers aren’t motivated by a desire for the trappings of wealth, or by the use of money to buy power. They deceive in vengeance for the ways they’ve been deceived, and they steal because they know money is what men use to keep women cowed and compliant. They want to owe men nothing.