Film Review: Widows

Buckle up for this realistic crime caper dominated by women of color.

Buckle up for this realistic crime caper dominated by women of color.

If you enjoyed Oceans 8 but thought there wasn’t enough backstory about who the women were, how they knew each other, or what their real-world motivation for a heist was, other than fun—you’ll love the gritty, raw, blow-by-blow assault of Widows.

There’s no glamour here. No glittering red carpet wish fulfillment. This is a Chicago-set, blood-sweat-and-tears-soaked caper upon which lives depend.

Directed by Steve McQueen (his first film since 12 Years a Slave) and written by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), Widows is named for three women who lose their worse halves in a robbery gone wrong and are left to cough up the $2 million that was incinerated along with their husbands.

Leading the gang is Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis) whose white husband Harry (Liam Neeson) loved her passionately, installed her in a penthouse, and protected her from just how rotten his profession is…or so it seems. But all is not what it seems and things get messy pretty quickly. Something is rotten in the patriarchy.

McQueen’s directorial technique of intercutting intimate scenes with violence, and camerawork that keeps you guessing about people’s true motives and what lurks around corners and behind doors tips us off to the fact that this is not going to be an easy ride. 

For starters, the money Veronica must return is to Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a corrupt politician running for office in the hope of becoming the first black alderman of his ward. He’s up against corrupt incumbent Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) whose White Devil father (played by Robert Duvall) loves his money and power even more than he hates blacks.

Adding real menace to this setup is Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya, nice guy in Get Out, he’s chillingly evil here) as a cold-blooded standover man.

Before he died, Harry left Veronica a notebook with clues to a super-heist that, if she can pull it off, will yield enough money to pay back the thugs and set her and her accomplices up for life. Veronica assembles her posse: Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), who towers over the other women at 6’2” but like many fair femmes is unsure of her place in the world; Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), a hardworking Latina mom who has also been done wrong by; and Belle (Cynthia Erivo), an athletic, pretty-butch hairdresser of few words who acts as the driver.

So, what’s in Widows for queer women? None of the characters is queer, as far as I can tell, although Veronica and Belle, and Veronica and Alice share glances that speak volumes—not about sex but about gender and the unspeakable burden of trying to survive in a fucked-up world created by men.

Not enough can be said about the power of watching a dark-skinned African-American actress play an intense lead in an action-drama and Viola Davis, as usual, delivers a towering performance. She is the Nina Simone of cinema and at 53 years of age still hasn’t been paid her due.

Michelle Rodriguez, who came out as bisexual in a 2013 interview with Entertainment Weekly, is a veteran of action films but as Linda she presents female vulnerability in a way that is new to her body of work. Similarly, Elizabeth Debicki, who has the body of an Amazon, is an outsized Alice living under the thumb of her tiny, sinister mother Agnieska (Jacki Weaver), whose sage advice to her daughter on getting ahead in life is to sign up to a sugar baby website and take the cash from men.

Maybe mommy has a point…

McQueen and Flynn take their time setting up the plot but once it gets going it goes. While crime and comeuppance should never be seen as a substitute for actually achieving feminism or civil rights, we also know that cinema’s preoccupation with this genre (from Set It Off to Atomic Blonde) tends to spike when we are reminded on a daily basis that the system is rigged for the benefit of the few and if you don’t take, you’ll get taken.

Widows was inspired by Lynda LaPlante’s 1983 British crime drama series, which essentially asks: what do women do when their (god)father figures fail them? Veronica, Alice, Linda and Belle step up. And you’ll be rooting for them.

Watch on Apple TV