There is a sub-genre of exploitation cinema that puts women in lead action roles yet still manages to objectify them. From Caged Heat to Foxy Brown, the very notion that the movie puts military–grade firearms in the hands of women is 100% the novelty of such films. How brazen! How ironic! How taboo that these women wear high heels, short skirts, have flawless makeup and perfect hair, and yet still manage to kick ass and blow away the bad guys . . . you know, doing gritty, dirty, men’s work.
Widows is not that movie, and relishes in letting you know that.
Directed by Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), working from a script he co-wrote with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, and based upon the 1980s British tv series by Lynda La Plante, Widows focuses on a trio of Chicago women whose career-criminal husbands all perished in a failed heist. The repercussions of these deaths are felt immediately: Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), mother of two, finds her formalwear shop getting repossessed because her husband gambled the shop’s rent money away; abused Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), jobless and short on self-esteem, is encouraged by her mother (Jacki Weaver) to join online services that would pair her with generous men in return for intimate relationships.
But the most pressing consequence is delivered to Veronica (Viola Davis), who gets a unpleasant visit from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), an aspiring politician running for alderman. As it turns out, $2 million of his money was destroyed in the heist job that ended in a fiery explosion which killed Veronica’s husband, mastermind Harry (Liam Neeson). Jamal gives Veronica a month to pay him back, or else face a fate not unlike Harry’s. When she later accesses her husband’s safe deposit box and discovers a book he kept, detailing the plans for another heist with a haul of $5 million, she reaches out to the other widows and proposes they execute this new job in place of their late husbands, suggesting the other women’s lives are also in danger if Jamal does not get his money back.
If Widows were strictly about three women planning and pulling off a clever, elaborate heist, it would still be worth watching, as Davis, Debicki and Rodriguez have the grit and chemistry to make all their scenes together intensely watchable. But McQueen and Flynn have a lot more on their mind, as their film is a far-reaching crime and political opus, in the mold of Michael Mann or Christopher Nolan, as well as a referendum on race, class and gender. It’s no mistake the action takes place largely in Chicago’s 18th Ward, a neighborhood that sees up to thirty drive-by shootings in a single week; it is an impoverished, violence-ridden place that is both manipulated and abandoned by those who would serve it. As awful as Jamal may be, he’s not the only villain in this piece, nor is his creepy, cold-blooded right hand man Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya). His political opponent Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), scion to a political family that has held power in this Ward for over sixty years, is already corrupt and jaded about a political process that alleges to empower its citizens but really doesn’t; he’s a slick-Willy seeking to rewrite the rules put in place by old-school bigots, best exemplified by his father, incumbent alderman Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall). In fact, it could be argued that the real antagonist here is the overall patriarchy, as just about every man in the story abuses, abandons, manipulates, threatens, or otherwise tries to constrain our female leads or the other women in the movie.
McQueen and Flynn manage the tricky work of making this an engrossing thriller about women putting up with men’s shit without being . . . well, without being a movie about women putting up with men’s shit. The film maintains its focus – plan the heist and pull it off without getting killed – but does so while keenly observing, along the way, how awful women, minorities and the poor are treated, without being unctuous or preachy about it. It even fosters some excellent friction between the three leads, as the well-off Veronica initially talks down to and alienates her more economically challenged partners in crime.
The A-list ensemble is spectacular across the board. As the main antagonists, Henry, Kaluuya, Farrell and Duvall offer up so many fascinating shades of awful, never once forgetting to make these creeps recognizably human. Rodriguez brings her trademark toughness to the proceedings, creating in Linda a completely relatable mother and grieving widow. And Debicki gives a star-making performance as a scared, battered woman slowly discovering strength she never knew she possessed.
But at the end of the day, this film is owned by Viola Davis. As the grieving Veronica, she is the cold, wounded heart of the story. She drags herself across all the stages of grief, sometimes all of them simultaneously. All the same, Davis never panders and does not want our sympathy. Her iron-willed resolve, her anger and indignation, topped off with her sharp wardrobe and her ever-present Westie terrier Olivia, make her an indelible, iconic anti-hero.
Widows succeeds as a crime thriller with something to say about the state of the world, never once talking down to its audience. Hollywood would do well to embrace McQueen and Flynn’s mature, whip-smart approach to popcorn entertainment.