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Film Review: Widows

Widows (2018; Directed by Steve McQueen)

Widows is a stylish and contemporarily resonant elevation of a genre film potboiler. Built up from the bones of a 1980s British television heist crime drama with the same name and concept, Widows is crafted by Steve McQueen (not the iconic – and quite dead – American actor but the Oscar-winning British director of 12 Years a Slave and Turner Award-winning film artist) and his co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn (author and scripter of Gone Girl) into an absorbing and exciting entertainment with searing undertones of gender, sexual, and racial politics.

Like its British TV model, Widows focuses on the wives, girlfriends, and significant others of a robbery crew (Coburn Goss, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Liam Neeson) whose last job goes disastrously, fatally wrong. Left to pick up the pieces, these shocked, grieving and increasingly desperate women do what they need to survive without their breadwinning men. While Amanda (Carrie Coon) cares for her infant and seems (suspiciously) stable, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) sees the clothing shop she runs (but which had her husband’s name on the ownership documents) threatened with repossession and sale, and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) supports herself with a transactional relationship with a wealthy real estate developer (Lukas Haas). Veronica (Viola Davis), however, faces a much more difficult and dangerous path: threatened by underworld elements from whom her presumed-dead husband criminal mastermind Harry Rawlings (Neeson) stole $2 million, Veronica plans to follow the blueprint plan for a lucrative cash heist left behind in Harry’s notebook.

Veronica enlists the aid of fellow widows Linda and Alice, as well as Linda’s steely, fit, and capable babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo) as a driver. Their planned theft draws the widows into the orbit of a bitterly contested South Side Chicago aldermanic election between dynastic scion Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and his African-American challenger Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who also happens to be the crime boss ripped off by Harry in the first place and whose brother and enforcer Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) is a frighteningly violent and uncompromising figure to contend with.

Widows is finely interwoven, with a twisting plot full of superb performances (Robert Duvall also shows up as the hard-as-nails Mulligan patriarch) whose overarching themes and highlight moments are deployed with painterly deliberation and artistry by McQueen. A productive tension between the material’s genre-film pedigree and McQueen’s arthouse sensibilities is maintained throughout. He’ll shoot a scene like an in-car dialogue exchange between a frustrated Jack and his young aide (Molly Kunz) in a single shot completely from outside the car with neither character visible, all to visually and geographically introduce the Mulligan headquarters and home which is the climactic robbery location. The scenes of Jatemme’s violence are artful and stylish but no less brutal for it; McQueen and Kaluuya seem keenly aware that such hitmen have a tendency to be glorified and their violence romanticized and rendered into celebrated badassery by insensitive audiences, and are careful to make Jatemme a nasty enough piece of work to head off such impressions.

McQueen peppers Widows with social and political subtexts as well, deepening an erstwhile diverting genre trifle. The Mulligan vs. Manning election subplot encompasses political and economic corruption in post-capitalist urban America, as well as maintaining nuanced sketches of race and authority: a charismatic but pragmatic preacher in the black church played by Jon Michael Hill demurs over whether to withdraw his longstanding support for the white Mulligans in favour of the black Manning, shared skin colour acting as no guarantor of allegiance. Jatemme’s no-quarter viciousness is tinged with political radicalism: as he tracks his quarry in one scene, he listens to a tape of a speech by Huey Newton, the revolutionary black activist and Black Panther Party co-founder.

Linda and Belle, the latter working as an aesthetician and babysitting on the side for extra income, demonstrate the slimmer economic margins for women of colour, while Alice sells herself in semi-respectable sex work to keep up her flashy lifestyle, a privilege of white womanhood that nonetheless extracts a toll in psychology and self-worth. Veronica mourns her biracial son with Harry, killed in a shocking, torn-from-the-headlines police shooting in his parents’ luxury car. Like a more masculinized film like Hell or High Water, Widows couches its cash heists in the social context of contemporary American decline and injustice, thus rendering them as subversive acts of edge-skirting justice in a corrupt and degenerated milieu in which such illegal thefts are miniscule drops in the bucket compared to the organized, legal mass plunder carried out by corporations and governments.

More than anything, Widows is an involving heist movie that explores and contextualizes in extremis the problematic nature of 21st-century feminism. The widows are forced into carrying out a high-risk robbery by dint of circumstances, not to stick it to the patriarchy, and McQueen and Flynn are surefooted in demonstrating the difficulty of their mission and the skin of the teeth by which they hope to pull it off. But the effort and trauma of the heist grants each widow, and especially the tremendous Davis as Veronica, a measure of independent self-determination that they could not have claimed as fundamentally kept women before the death of their male partners. It also erects a certain sense of feminine solidarity by carving out a sphere in control (or at least of acquisition) in the male sphere of the violent crime underworld. Artful, entertaining, and even affecting, Widows is about stealing not only money but also dignity in the process.

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