Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: Gillian Flynn, Steve McQueen
Composers: Hans Zimmer
Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Not knowing that Widows (2018) is derived from 1980’s television series, I saw the announcement trailer for Widows (as seen above) during my screening of BlackKklansman. I considered the concept of the film poor: Mission Impossible with girls! Only after seeing the close-to-release second trailer did I begin to take interest in the film. It still seemed like Mission Impossible with girls, but they discover a dark secret as they execute their mission…and now featuring Liam Neeson! Placing emphasis on Viola Davis’ acting prowess (and appealing to my personal affinity to Michelle Rodriguez, who has been bae since Resident Evil ), this newer trailer betrayed a conscious awareness that the film would come up against Ralph Breaks the Internet and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Yet makes this film worth seeing is everything viewers do not expect to see.
Violence: A vehicle loaded with passengers explodes, and in another scene, a deadly car crash takes place, focusing on what happens to a driver’s face when it tries to go through a windshield due to a lack of a seatbelt. The muscle for one gang outfit executes two people via close-range gunshots and tortures another person in a separate scene with multiple stab wounds. At least four other characters suffer from gunshot wounds; three of them die.
Language/Crude Humor: Expect real-world, R-rated movie language. Christ’s name is frequently taken in vain. All of the common four-letter words make themselves known.
Drug and Alcohol Use: Only one character smokes. Two characters enjoy drinks on a boat.
Spiritual Content: The headquarters of a man running for alderman of a South Side precinct is located in a converted church. His rival visits him, and comments half-jokingly, that this is illegal due to the separation of church and state. Of course, this is an empty grievance.
Racism and Bigotry: One character uses “these people” as a euphemism to stereotype an entire race. In a moment of self-doubt, a white male character asks his white female companion if she has ever slept with a black man in an attempt to compare his sexual prowess—also a stereotype. Another white male uses the N-word with the connotation that black competition is inferior to his family and him.
Sexuality: One widow turns to sex work to sustain herself. In one scene, she strips topless for her man and is briefly mounted missionary-style with the man’s buttocks turned toward the camera before another character interrupts them. Another widow fails to seduce another character from whom she needs a favor. A gang hideout is decorated with posters of topless women in the background.
Though the movie is titled Widows, not all of the women are actually widowed. For that to be possible, they would have had had to have been married. Several of the “widows” were simply in relationships via cohabitation. Being married for almost thirteen years, I view the equivocation of “partnerships” with marriage with intense antipathy.
The basic premise of Widows is no more complex than what can be determined from the trailers. A group of thieves attempts a big score and things go sideways when a member of the crew gets shot. Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), the brains behind the operation, makes an error when attempting to hide from the authorities by parking the getaway van in a warehouse. A S.W.A.T. team greets the crew with gunfire from automatic weapons, and the vehicle explodes, killing everyone inside. News reaches the wives of these men in a wave, and the grief commences.
Jamal Manning propels the plot by (Brian Tyree Henry) paying a visit to Henry’s widow, Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis). In his last heist, Henry stole two million dollars from Jamal, and the “victim” wants it back, claiming to need it to fund his political campaign for alderman of the South Side district, though in a previous scene he mentions to his brother and muscle, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), that he needs the money to get out of the game (criminal underworld) and go clean. Veronica’s dumbfoundedness reveals that she had no clue of her husband’s activities, but Jamal is not discouraged, threatening that “**** Better Have My Money” in a month, or else!
Here, the audience has to assume a few things, or at least give the benefit of doubt to account for some porous writing. Jamal must be a big enough crime boss to know that it was Harry who hit him up. Secondly, only when the two million disappears does he engage in extortion, so could not be that much of a threat, going after a dead man’s wife. Third, the code of “snitches get stitches” must implicitly apply in the movie in a way that it fails to inform the audience. After all, no party ever attempts to get the authorities involved. To shore up this last gap in writing, an explanation concerning the lack of police involvement would be appreciated. Unlike The Hate U Give, Widows does not contextually benefit from an assumed G Code application.
Of course, Veronica appealing to the police while claiming innocence would not make much for a compelling film. So instead, her chauffeur, Bash, discloses that “Should anything happen to Harry, he wanted you to have this”—a key to a lockbox that becomes its own mini-quest unveiling a notebook revealing information far less wholesome than the relationship between Noah Calhoun and Allie Hamilton: it contains plans for a $5 million heist. Taking note of the meticulous details in Henry’s notes, Veronica contacts the widows of each member in her belated husband’s crew in an effort to carry out this last mission, all while Jatemme dogs her every step.
Here, another plot hole bothers me. Jamal threatens Veronica, yet she informs the widows who respond to her call, Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki), that they are also in danger, too. If this is supposed to be Veronica manipulating her “crew,” I am not convinced. Instead, I read this consistently with the film’s more exigent, more fascinating social commentary concerning a cast of obsequious women. They have been conditioned all of their lives to obey.
Indeed, these women apparently exist in a vacuum where they have never heard of Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor, and so, avatars of comparable stature must be forged. But before a hero rises to triumph over her enemies, she must suffer a crushing blow, for all the sweeter the victory afterward (for those familiar with the Aristotelian models). One must acknowledge that every husband in this movie either lies to their wives or keeps them quiet through the threat of violence or abandonment.
The death of Linda’s husband triggers the repossession of her business, for it was in his name and not hers, despite the logo, and repo man comes to collect. Alice, 6′ 2″ and thin enough to be a runway model, appears to be a second generation immigrant with no skills besides remaining prone. She prickles at her mother’s suggestion to use her good looks for money but succumbs nevertheless. Besides Amanda Nunn (Carrie Coon), who refrains from getting involved because she is too busy nursing a newborn, Veronica whips the other women into shape, reminding them that their lives are at stake.
They meet uneven success during their preparation efforts, as is congruent with expectations for women figuratively transitioning “from kitchen-to-crime.” Viola Davis’s versatility as Veronica while continuously transitioning between the innocent grieving widow to the gang ringleader is to be expected, but the dynamism of Elizabeth Debicki’s Alice strongly showcases her character’s penchant for adaptation. She puts on an accent to “play” victim, leverages her transactional relationship with a man who conveniently works in architecture, and turns out to be a sharpshooter. Even if viewers miss the changes in other characters, Debicki’s Alice is one whose evolution demonstrates the potential that these women always had; her man was clearly holding her back.
Linda was also handicapped by her man, but Rodriguez’s acting remains static. While executing her portion of pre-raid assignments, her sudden burst of tears comes off as more awkward than authentic. Her best contribution to the scheme is the recruitment of Belle (Cynthia Evo), a character introduced as a single mother who hustles between so many jobs—including babysitting Linda’s kids—that she hardly has time for her own daughter. If the point has yet to hit home, the necessity for Belle to sprint to make the city bus to catch extra jobs to make ends meet is certainly an indictment on the inequalities of this being a man’s world.
I hardly have space to address how Colin Ferrell and Robert Duvall’s characters, Jack and Tom Mulligan, come into play, even though how the widows’ stories weave into these political figures is what elevates Widows from good to great. In by far the best scene in the film, Jack rallies some local community black women business owners while a beat writer accosts him. He and his assistant hop into his car, and bicker about the viability of his candidacy, as the scenery transitions from an impoverished community to the suburbs where his home and headquarters is located in the span of a 2-3 minute continuous scene, the camera locked on to the front of the car the entire time. I only wish that I could have seen the actor and actress reciting their lines rather than likely reciting their lines over a microphone and having them integrated into the scene in post-production. Even so, Jack and Tom Mulligan symbolize how the more things change, the more things stay the same.
Widows pleasantly surprised me, not because of the “girl power” heist, but because of the interventions that Steve McQueen makes while molding Lynda La Plante’s original concept into a modern context. Though a movie like this in the suspense genre tends to lose its intrigue after “the reveal,” I believe this one offers enough ammunition beyond its basic premise to warrant further viewings and analyzation. Those not interested in the social justice elements that Widows have to offer can still enjoy a good old-fashioned caper.
+ Lasting appeal + Great undergirding "meta" story + Better acting than what one might be accustomed to for a movie of this type
- A few gaps in the writing - Belle (and others) not exactly widowed - Not a single memorable track from Hans Zimmer
The Bottom Line
With Widows, came for a spiritual successor to Set It Off (1996), and came away with a satisfying revision of the ongoing discourse concerning the economic (im)mobility of women when (their) men fail them.