Steve McQueen’s heist drama Widows opened last week to stellar reviews but a somewhat disappointing weekend at the box office. It’s grosses aren’t anything to sneeze at, but as awards season rolls on and the box office battles get tougher, it’ll be hard for the film to escape the limiting hit/flop binary. That’s obviously immensely disappointing because Widows deserves far better than to be defined by how much money it’s made (and boy is it frustrating to hear complaints that Hollywood doesn’t care about non-franchise films anymore from audiences that still pump most of their disposable income into that very machine while overlooking these beautiful gems). McQueen’s first film since winning Best Picture with 12 Years a Slave, Widows is adapted from a British mini-series written by crime legend Lynda LaPlante, although co-screenwriter duties fell to another popular author, Gillian Flynn. The basic story - the widowed women of a group of criminals join forces to finish the last job their husbands did not complete - hides a deftly textured study of womanhood and its intersections with race, class, politics, criminality and an array of other hot-button issues. Everyone’s seen the heist movie about that one last job, but you’ve never seen one like Widows, and that’s thanks to the widows themselves.
The quartet of women at the centre of Widows are Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis), a teacher’s union delegate whose husband was the de facto leader of his bank robbing cohorts; Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez), a clothes shop owner whose gambling husband has left her with a mountain of debt; and Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki), the victim of an abusive husband and manipulative mother who has been told her entire life to be pretty, quiet and utterly reliant on men. They are later joined by Belle (Cynthia Erivo), Linda’s babysitter and a beautician who sees first-hand the devastation created by a corrupt political system. The job is ‘simple’: Follow Veronica’s husband’s plans to job the home of retiring politician Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall), whose son Jack (Colin Farrell) is running to replace his father as alderman of a South Side precinct against local crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). It is Jamal who has demanded millions of dollars from Veronica after her husband’s botched robbery left him financially short.
To call Widows a film about crooks feels reductive. It’s a story of crime, how it affects everyone and how certain figures are cloaked in just enough legality to get away with it. The Mulligans are blatantly corrupt Chicago politicians who treat democracy as their own local monarchy and flagrantly mingle with the city’s underworld without ever fearing repercussions. Jamal does not enter politics to get out of a life of crime: It’s just a more legally secure foundation for him to continue business as usual. Veronica has a respectable life and job with the teacher’s union but she is as knee-deep in the mud as her bank robbing husband. It takes her no time at all to go from panicking about where she’ll get the money demanded by Jamal to deciding to rob a politician’s home.
The other women are more hesitant about what Veronica has asked of them - they are all strangers to one another, connected only by their husbands - but the sad reality is that they have no other options. Linda is a small business owner who loses it all the moment her husband dies because, unbeknownst to her, he put up her shop as collateral for his mounting gambling debts. Alice’s husband beat her regularly and she was dependent on him, but the moment he is gone, her slimy mother encourages her to become an escort for rich men because that’s all she’s good for in her eyes. Bell juggles multiple jobs just to stay afloat and watches as her hard-working boss sinks deeper into her own debts at the hands of the Mulligans. Capitalism in general tends to benefit men more than women - especially if they’re white - but even in the grimy underworld of Chicago politics and crime, the millions flowing through its foundations only benefits a handful of them.
Widows has been called a Robin Hood story. The great fantasy of that narrative lies in its simple and utterly alluring politics: Steal from the rich to give to the poor. It’s economic distribution with a hefty side order of justice (and yet reboot after reboot still have to tinker with what is inherently a hugely appealing concept). For Widows the lines between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are far less defined. It’s less stealing from the rich to help the poor than it is stealing from the rich because that’s the only option a crooked system has left the poor with.
Veronica may be Viola Davis’s best role. Few actresses command awe and respect in the way she does with little more than a steely look. Her icy public demeanour is a harsh necessity, one she only lets slip when she’s alone or truly afraid (and boy is Brian Tyree Henry great at making you afraid of him). She’s efficient, she knows what to do and how to do it when the time comes, even if it means throwing a few people under the bus. Above all, she’s practical. Her adorable dog goes everywhere she goes because there’s no time to organize a dog-sitter while she plans the robbery. She gives the other women their jobs to do and has no qualms about telling them they’re doing a s—t job. She’s not powerless - her work with the teacher’s union means she still has the ability to command a one-on-one meeting with a political candidate - but she is keenly aware that even that prestige comes second to a man’s petty theft.
Linda is like many women whose finances are one slip-up away from crumbling to dust. She’s supposed to be the woman who ‘did things right’: She has a successful business, her children are well-behaved and looked after, and her husband is still on the scene, even if he is in more debt than he’s willing to admit. But he also sold her out without letting her know the ramifications of his dealings. Uncaring goons come to repossess her business and don’t display a modicum of emotion when she reveals that she had no clue her husband had put her shop up as collateral. Even her own mother-in-law sees her more as the failure than her dead son, a criminal who refused to stop gambling. Of the three widows, Linda is the one who struggles the most openly with her grief. She truly loved her husband and has to juggle the conflicting emotions that come with adoring someone, missing them and hating what they’ve done to you. There’s no time for her to deal with any of those feelings, so she must pull herself up and get on with looking after herself and her family.
For Alice, her new freedom as a widow is just as emotionally complex. Her husband beat her regularly but she still sobbed at his funeral. Her mother (played with calculating camp by Jacki Weaver) has reinforced Alice’s low self-esteem since birth, and everyone she comes into contact with is quick to write her off as a bimbo who cannot survive without a man to hold her up. Even as a statuesque beauty — Debicki is 6 foot two and the film never tries to downplay her height, unlike some films she’s been in - she is talked down to by everyone she meets. Veronica dismisses her as an airhead. The man who she becomes an escort for (Lukas Haas at his most effectively smarmy) likes her but not enough to see her as anything more than a transaction. Yet it is Alice who goes through the biggest transformation during Widows. Her natural intuitiveness, ingrained in her psyche through years of appeasing abusers, makes her remarkably good at reading a room and using it to her advantage. She’s pretty and sometimes that’s enough to get the attention of people who can be of use to her, whether it’s buying a van at auction for the heist or getting someone else to purchase the necessary guns. After so many years of moulding herself to suit the desires of those who wish to undermine her, Alice gets to be the one with power, even if it is incremental in comparison to those around her.
Belle is the least developed of the quartet, in part because she’s not one of the actual widows (Carrie Coon is the fourth wife who decides to sit out the heist) but she faces many of the same hardships. She’s a beautician who takes babysitting jobs on the side, often sprinting between gigs just to catch the bus. Her boss has gone through all the supposedly proper routes to establish her own business, taking advantage of a scheme put in place by the Mulligans, but that is only another poorly veiled cover for exploitation. Belle works and works, often dropping family time with her own kid to go look after someone else’s, and it’s still not enough. How can it be when the system is so vile? Economic independence and prosperity is promised but the empowerment of working-class black women is just another opportunity for profit for those in power.
It would be so easy to take any one of these four women and spin off their narratives into films. The story of Veronica’s marriage could be a noir romance of its very own (Viola Davis and Liam Neeson in the few scenes they share have ridiculous chemistry). There’s so much more to know about Belle and Linda and her intersecting daily lives. I’d kill for something more on Alice after the film ends. I’m so used to watching male dominated films where the token female characters are nothing more than the abstract of a person whose story is left on the page, if it was ever written at all. Here, Widows offers an array of endlessly complex and interesting characters, each of whom tests the audience’s loyalties and forces them to confront deep-seated ideals they may not have known they had.
McQueen and Flynn don’t treat the women of Widows as heroes or Strong Female Characters for audiences to point to as an example. They are prickly figures too many people like to write off as ‘difficult women’ but what makes them so tricky is their refusal to be anyone’s political cause or shield. By the end of the film, you’re hungering for more because Widows just offered a bounty of interesting women on screen with such seeming ease where others think the dutiful wife waiting at home for the tortured male genius is enough. The women of Widows do not ask for your love but they command your respect.
So, please go and see Widows if you can. We could use more women like this in every aspect of our lives.
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