British filmmaker Steve McQueen has made a name for himself with issue films, more memorably with his Oscar-winning feature 12 Years a Slave in 2013. Perhaps it therefore shouldn’t be such a surprise that his new film Widows, although presented as a heist film a la Ocean’s Eight, tackles such heavy subjects as grief, female independence and racial discrimination. What is truly impressive is how those elements all come together smoothly and effectively, making for McQueen’s most commercial film, but also one of his best to date.
When her husband Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) suddenly dies in a shootout, the details of which the police is keeping hidden, Veronica (Viola Davis) barely has any time to grieve properly. Soon enough, a man called Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) comes to her home to threaten her (and her lovely, innocent dog): Harry and his associates, who also perished in the incident, left behind a big debt that Veronica must pay back if she wants to live.
McQueen doesn’t diminish Veronica’s fear, but nor does he let it obfuscate the sorrow she feels for her husband. It’s hard to imagine another actress capable of communicating Veronica’s complicated emotions better than Davis: her face is where the film’s drama really takes place. McQueen never makes the spectator pity his tortured and unlikely heroine. Instead, he has great empathy for her and lets her dictate the film’s progression. Widows moves at the rhythm of Veronica’s recollections of Harry: she remembers her sensations when she would lie in bed with him, or his reflection appears to her in a window as Nina Simone singing ‘Wild Is the Wind” turns on the record player. Even as Veronica worries about the secrets he had for her, his ghost is always there, because she can’t help loving him and hurting.
More from Manuela Lazic: TIFF 2018 Review: Sara Colangelo’s ‘The Kindergarten Teacher’
A plan to secure some funds appears from beyond Harry’s grave, but Veronica knows she will need help to execute it, and contacts the widows of Harry’s partners in crime. McQueen gives just as much attention to Linda’s (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice’s (Elizabeth Debicki) pain, which is of a different nature. Their relationships with their husbands were unique, and so is their mourning. Based on Lynda La Plante’s television script and adapted for the screen by McQueen and Gillian Flynn, this version of Widows gives a lot of space to the women of its title and their less admirable or conventional emotions. For however heartbroken they may be, they are also now broke and in need of new resources, which makes McQueen navigate the perilous waters of female autonomy. To survive, each has to use her wits, which Hollywood often takes to mean that women have to degrade themselves for a male spectator. But just as Flynn’s Gone Girl character always remained in control, the women here, while not being qualified spies, still have self-respect and ingenuity. When Linda brings her nanny Belle (the energetic Cynthia Erivo) to become the driver for the coup that the team is planning, the young recruit refuses to have her employer or anyone else vouch for her: she vouches for herself. Far from the superficial feminism of Ocean’s Eight, Widows gives its female characters real chances to show what they are made of, and what they want, on their own terms.
Chicago’s dark underground is the claustrophobic setting where the women have to operate, and Widows belongs firmly in the mafia-thriller genre. Corrupt politicians are never far when large sums of money are missing, and McQueen relies perhaps a little too heavily on stereotypes when it comes to the male characters. Colin Farrell portrays Jack Mulligan, who hates having to play the political game of lies and seduction, with borderline-cartoonish anger, and his racist father Tom is interpreted by Robert Duvall, The Godfather’s consigliere himself. These broad and obvious characterisations pay off, however, as they make the widows’ comparative moral and psychological complexity all the more evident. These women can’t be simply motivated by greed because they’ve had to both rely on their husbands, and be caretakers for them. Those obstacles have made them more aware of the risks that come with going after what you want — and if this isn’t the female experience, I don’t know what is.
More from Manuela Lazic: TIFF 2018 Review: Brady Corbet’s ‘Vox Lux’
McQueen’s focus on the emotional journeys of his heroines, together with the genre tropes he blatantly employs, also distracts from the plot’s smart mechanics. One can easily become so involved with Veronica’s empowering adventure that the discoveries she makes along the way might come as complete and brutal surprises. There, the women’s experiences come together with the film’s genre nature for an explosive and heartbreaking moment. Less a subversion of the heist film than an excavation of its best and least tapped into aspects, Widows offers the thrills and the feelings, the political and the sentimental corruption, the men but also, and especially, the women behind them, who will do anything for love, but won’t do that.
Manuela Lazic (@ManiLazic) is a French film critic based in London, UK. She regularly contributes to The Ringer, Little White Lies Magazine and SPARK. Her work has also appeared at The Film Stage and the BFI, among other publications.