“Living and breathing the urgency of its moment with the timeless indelibility of a classic crime story.”
by Ken Bakely
There’s a joke about midway through Steve McQueen’s Widows, during a conversation in which Veronica (Viola Davis), one of the widows of four professional thieves killed in a botched robbery, is speaking with Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), another one of the wives. They’re planning a complex heist to clear the last debts left by their husbands, which involves stealing $5 million from a corrupt politician (Colin Farrell), and giving it to his corrupt opponent (Brian Tyree Henry). For this operation to work, Veronica explains to Alice that they’ll need to arm themselves. She instructs her to go off and buy three handguns as soon as possible. Alice is thrown off by the vagueness of the instruction, and asks where she is supposed to obtain guns on such short notice. Without missing a beat, Veronica plainly replies, “This is America.” It’s a throwaway exchange, but one that’s startlingly effective at summarizing the film’s broad scope. A masterful mosaic of a movie, it makes great use of its stellar ensemble cast and remarkable crime drama credentials to form a larger snapshot of American culture, in all its claims of opportunity juxtaposed against staggering inequalities. It’s a carefully mounted work that never loses its furious passion, a balance that makes it both entertaining in its genre achievements and deeply impactful in its continual social probing of the world in which it exists.
The movie examines a wide network of characters and situations. They affect each other with individual or situational affectations and larger power dynamics alike, invoking McQueen’s acute awareness that although he is adapting a 1983 British television serial in concept, he’s making Widows for a 2018 audience, set in Chicago and cast against the backdrop of contemporary American life. Conservatives have long enjoyed painting the city’s crime rates and history of social unrest as a grand accumulation of failures from its centuries of Democratic political dominance, but the reality is a setting that indicates broader concerns of socioeconomic inequality throughout the nation. Reflecting this, the leading female characters range in wealth and autonomy. Veronica is a labor union official who previously enjoyed an otherwise secure, upper middle-class lifestyle before the debts revealed themselves; Alice turned to prostitution to make ends meet after her husband died; Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) is a small business owner who – in the absence of the fourth widow, Amanda (Carrie Coon), who is caring for her newborn child – rounds out the heist plans with Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a full-time hair stylist also working long hours as a babysitter.
Outside their scheming, disparities grow ever wider. One particularly potent scene sees Farrell’s Jack Mulligan finishing a campaign stop in a hardscrabble, majority-minority neighborhood in the ward he’s running to represent, a seat vacated by his ailing father (Robert Duvall). The event is ostensibly promoting the business efforts of women of color, but he’s the white man who positions himself as their singular hero and proxy voice. We don’t ever hear the women speak. Jack ignores questions from the press and climbs into the backseat of his chauffered car. In a single take, the camera follows the car as it drives from the littered streets and empty lots of the neighborhood, and heads for the towering gates, manicured lawns, and steep old houses of the area Jack actually resides in. On a technical level, it’s a complete coup by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, the apex of his tendency to frame the film’s high contrast imagery with otherwise desaturated tones, emphasizing that vast implemented differences are tinged with the chaos of their own corruption. On a symbolic level, it’s another striking way that the movie casually reiterates its own theses in any number of individual sequences. There’s no question that Widows, down to the title, is about the women pulling off the heist acting in a context that’s new to them. It’s nuanced and messy, but it deals with the process of being relinquished from the shadow they’ve lived under in the form of their husbands’ work. They’ve always been positioned as the other, removed from the dirty details, yet cognizant of what their goals entail. By finishing the job, they’re not taking up the mantle for those men: instead, they’re trying to close the book.
This is exemplified in late-stage developments that I dare not spoil here, but they represent another clear shift in the characters’ larger contextualization, and how their visibility and power levels are in a state of review and change. It centers around Davis’s Veronica, and she delivers a performance as compelling as ever throughout, from her solo, nonverbal actions to the way the character commands discussions and planning with her cohorts as the leader of the heist. The cast is both at home with the action-heavy climax, centered around the job and its aftermath; and the cerebral interplay between their characters and the structures that they live within. It’s that perfect blend again, and McQueen’s solid filmmaking skills round everything off under the hands of a steady director who never forgets how to convey both the top-level thrills of a given scene – and beneath it, everything that’s built up to that point. Widows is a marvel, living and breathing the urgency of its moment with the timeless indelibility of a classic crime story. Robust and riveting, it slices through the human consequences of a deeply corrupted landscape and leaves nothing unexamined.