Reviews: Widows (2018)
To call Steve McQueen’s Widows a heist film is like calling The Wire a cop show: it’s technically accurate, but doesn’t get at what the work is really about. Widows involves a heist, but it’s about so much more, including local politics in the city of Chicago, the segregation of the South Side of Chicago’s population, and institutional corruption more broadly. Ultimately, it’s about complicity, where every single character is beholden to the machine of exploitation and culpable for their actions, regardless of their circumstances. Everyone is guilty here; our sympathy depends only on some being less guilty than others.
As McQueen’s first foray into genre filmmaking, Widows satisfies conventions with some thrilling action sequences and a twisty narrative that catches the audience off guard in its surprise revelations. But it’s the nuanced look at corruption and morality that makes the film linger when the thrills have dissipated. This is a film with weight and worth. We shouldn’t expect anything less from McQueen at this point.
The plot has a compelling hook: in the opening scene, four robbers (Liam Neeson, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Coburn Goss) are killed in a heist gone wrong. We soon learn that they robbed the Manning brothers, Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry) and Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), and the Manning Brothers now expect the widow of the lead robber, Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis), to pay back what her husband stole. She doesn’t have the money, so she ropes the widows (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Carrie Coon) of her husband’s partners into pulling off a job her husband had planned before he died. One widow (Carrie Coon) has a baby, so she bails, but they get a fourth woman (Cynthia Erivo) to take her place, and together these women plan to dig themselves out of the hole their husbands got them in.
The heist aspect drives the plot, but the meat of the film’s focus is an alderman’s race in the South Side of Chicago. Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall) is retiring, his son, Jack (Colin Farrell), is running to replace him, and his greatest challenger is Jamal Manning, who has the support of the ward’s black community. We quickly learn that the alderman’s race isn’t window-dressing or a subplot meant to fill out the runtime; it’s tied to the crimes and vice versa. The stolen money feeds the election and the election precipitates more crimes as the new alderman will be able to dole out whatever contracts he wants, taking a cut of each job. As Jamal explains to Jatemme in an early scene, being the alderman only pays a hundred grand a year, but it lets you in on every job going on in the ward. It lets you be the kingpin and make money out in the open, legitimizing what criminals usually have to do in secret.
This sort of narrative cross-pollination is key to the interests of McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn (best known for Gone Girl). As in the aforementioned The Wire, the crime in Widows is not sequestered from other happenings in the city, and politics is often mere criminality in everything but name. This gives the film a political topicality that isn’t found in a lot of genre fare. In response to this topicality, some critics have styled the film as “entertainment with a message,” but I don’t know about that. Lots of mainstream entertainment like Black Panther and Wonder Woman have progressive messaging, either implicitly or explicitly. Widows is actually more complicated than those films, not because it is making a statement about the world, but rather, that unlike most mainstream, progressive fare, it doesn’t identify an issue with the world and then simplistically resolve that issue. Instead, it shows what a complicated mess the world is in and attempts to demonstrate some of the many ways that dysfunction is maintained.
Part of the entertainment appeal of Widows is watching the lead actresses be badasses. The marketing played into this aspect, almost billing the film as a grittier Ocean’s Eight, but Widows is more than empty empowerment. Viola Davis’s Veronica is our protagonist, but she’s not a good person. As the film unfolds, we learn about her complicity in her husband’s crimes and any projection of innocence or being a simple victim fades away. The same goes for Michelle Rodriguez’s Linda and Elizabeth Debicki’s Alice. They have to deal with the fallout of their husbands’ mistakes, but they’re not helpless damsels, and as the film progresses, they harden into people not much different than their husbands were.
It’s exciting to watch these characters plan the heist and grow a backbone as they get more involved in crime; McQueen and Flynn understand that part of the appeal of genre entertainment is watching people do bad things. It should go without saying at this point that Viola Davis is a pleasure to watch and her steely-eyed efficiency is energizing. However, the growth of Debicki’s Alice is particularly compelling, as she transforms from abused wife to high-end call girl to cunning manipulator without losing the complicated emotions that make her sympathetic.
As well, the action is thrilling, but hardly empowering. In fact, it’s usually brutal. McQueen doesn’t flinch away from the violence. The opening car chase shows how chaotic and destructive crime is as Neeson and the fellow robbers flee the police with the back doors of their van dragging along the road behind them; McQueen restricts the camera to the back of the van, robbing us of any larger context for the scene, while maintaining visual clarity. The final heist itself is also shockingly brutal, as the women are forced to commit violence to accomplish the job.
I haven’t even mentioned Daniel Kaluuya yet, who plays Jatemme, and who haunts the film much like The Joker or Hannibal Lecter did in The Dark Knight or The Silence of the Lambs, respectively. Kaluuya, who mined his big, watery eyes for all their sympathetic worth in last year’s Get Out, now uses them to conjure dead-eyed terror in the characters and the viewer. An early scene has him interrogating two men he found snooping around his hangout and forcing the one man to rap a song while staring the man down an inch away from his face, as if goading the man to break his concentration. He moves like a cobra dancing before striking its prey; it’s terrifying.
Other moments in Widows are fascinating not for the brutality of the violence, but for how they confront the dysfunction of the city and the people that live in it. One virtuoso shot follows Colin Farrell’s Jack as he leaves a campaign event outside a bunch of rundown apartments and heads to the upscale, red-brick mansions a few blocks away. The shot remains on the hood of the car, focusing more on the background of the neighbourhood than on the car itself. While initially an odd choice, the lack of a cut soon clarifies how segregated and inexplicably unequal Chicago is; a block that looks like a desolation sits next to opulence and luxury, and McQueen’s camera seamlessly transports us between the two.
Even Jamal’s comments to Jatemme complicate an easy political binary, which is that the Mulligans are white, racist oppressors (which they are), and the Mannings are black liberators (which they aren’t). He’s filling the role of the community organizer trying to rally some equity for his black constituents, but he ultimately justs wants a piece of the action. He’s like Stringer Bell in the third season of The Wire, wanting to legitimize his business after recognizing that the most powerful criminals are the ones in the public sphere. The film’s only misstep with regards to politics has to do with a flashback that reduces a hot button issue to little more than character motivation; it’s not an unbelievable moment by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s one issue too many in a film with enough on its mind. It distracts from the core message, which is that everyone is culpable in our modern world.
As I’ve made clear, everything in Widows hangs on the complicity of its characters. The gangsters and politicians are complicit with the segregation and corruption of the city, for sure. But even more importantly, the widows themselves are complicit with the crimes of their husbands; they present themselves as victims, but they don’t get to inhabit a space outside their husbands’ moral corruption. The film’s neat trick is that it accurately shows how women are always the first people to bear the ramifications of the sins of men, while also showing how women can be a party to those sins themselves, either complicit to their performance, or actively engaging in them themselves. The machine of corruption, both institutional and personal, swallows everyone in Widows.
It’s hard to think of a recent crime film that digs more perceptively into the thorny confluences that define the here and now. But as I said earlier, at this point, we should expect Steve McQueen to give us more than advertised. And yet, he continues to surprise.
9 out of 10
Widows (2018, UK/USA)
Directed by Steve McQueen; written by Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen, based on the television series by Lynda La Plante; starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Garret Dillahunt, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Jon Bernthal, Lukas Haas, Kevin J. O’Connor, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson.