In Widows, Steve McQueen’s latest film the courage of four women is explored on a personal and societal level. When a heist planned by her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) goes horribly wrong, and she becomes a widow, Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis) takes matters in her own hands to repay a debt that is owed.
From the very beginning McQueen makes it clear just how differently the lives of Veronica and the three other female leads are from each other. The opening montage switches back and forth between Harry and his crew fleeing from the scene of the robbery, and the women interacting with their husbands that morning before it all went wrong.
As Veronica and Harry lay kissing and cuddling in bed, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) sits on her husband Florek’s (Jon Bernthal) lap while he makes fun of her for crying from the black eye he gave her. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) argues with Carlos (Miguel Garcia-Rulfo) about the money he keeps gambling away, and Amanda (Carrie Coon) asks Jimmy (Coburn Goss) if he’s sure about the heist, while he holds their baby. The sequence ends with the get-away van exploding after being shot up by the police.
After the funeral Veronica is standing alone in front of her condo’s living room window, and imagines Harry coming up from behind to hug her, as Nina Simone’s “Wild Is the Wind” plays in the background. As Harry’s image fades away, she hears a knock and goes to answer the door, opening it, she finds Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry).
Jamal tells her that Harry stole $2 Million from him, she says that Harry never told her anything about his jobs and she doesn’t have the money. Looking around the condo, Jamal says that she’s surrounded by things that she could get money. From the beginning Davis has been giving an extremely powerful performance of a woman barely holding herself together as she struggles with the sudden death of her husband, but it was Henry who stole this scene.
While speaking to Veronica, Jamal holds her small terrier Olivia and the entire time he’s sitting there you, the viewer is filled with a sense of dread that any moment he’s going to kill the dog. Henry conveys a sense of malice in Jamal, where he doesn’t need to be doing much by way of making overtly threatening actions to let Veronica – and the audience – know that he’s an extremely dangerous man who is not to be crossed.
Realizing that she needs help, Veronica contacts the other widows and tries to convince them to join her in a heist to steal $5 million to repay Manning and make new lives for themselves. At first the others except for aren’t on board, but the women except for Amanda, eventually agree to do it.
While Veronica, Linda and Alice are planning their heist with plans Harry kept in safe deposit box, another kind of heist is taking place in Widows, this time in the political arena. Jamal’s opponent in his race to become alderman of Chicago’s 18th ward is Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the same man who hired Harry to rob Jamal. In his bid to become alderman, Jack has been centering his platform around support for a specific demographic…Black women.
After making promises and patting himself on the back for helping to raise funds for an initiative that offers support to Black women wanting to start their own business but it comes at a price literally as the women have to pay him to keep their business open. After making his speech, Jack makes a hasty exist when a reporter begins to question him about missing funds. He gets in his shiny, black town car and drives away.
For me this was one of the post important sequences in Widows, not only from a technical perspective, but also story and character wise. Two things in particular stood out to me, the first being how Jack’s assistant Siobhan (Molly Kunz) spoke to him. As soon as they get in the car Jack starts to complain about struggling to get out of his father’s shadow, having to go up against someone like Jamal and even mentions black on black crime, while being driven by a Black man. But unexpectedly Siobhan to put it plainly puts him in his place and basically tells Jack to suck it up and do what he needs to do to become alderman.
Even though she stood behind him in public, Siobhan wasn’t afraid to tell Jack exactly what she thought and speaks to the adage that behind every strong man, is an even stronger woman. It was unexpected and highlights the characterization of the women in Widows.
The second thing that stood out for me was how the scene was filmed. I was done in an extended take that began from the looking at the stage where Jack and Siobhan stood, and follows them to the car. Rather than being filmed from the inside, the camera stays focused on the outside of the car allowing viewers see the path it takes.
The ride from the projects where the open-air meeting took place, to Jack’s house took less than four minutes, but the difference in the surroundings were practically night and day. In one scene the distance between wealth and poverty is Chicago (and North America) is explored and commented on without it being directly addressed in the dialogue.
As the deadline for the money to be returned to Jamal gets closer Veronica, Linda, Alice and Belle (Cynthia Ervio) who Linda brings on to be their driver, try to become a more cohesive unit, but there are stumbling blocks along the way, mainly Veronica’s attitude towards them. From the moment they first met Veronica has been antagonistic, condescending and dismissive towards them, particularly Alice.
The strongest aspect of Widows is the way the film explores how women from different back grounds interact with each other. Not every group of women will bond and become friends just because they are going through a similar experience or even the same race. While you can sympathize with what Veronica is going through, she’s not particularly likable and that’s ok.
It was a pleasant surprise to see Michelle Rodriguez in a role that is the complete opposite of her character Letty in the Fast and Furious franchise and reminds us that she started her acting career in 2000’s Girlfight. Having her play a character that couldn’t shoot or didn’t become the get-away driver, may seem like a small thing, but it actually shows how careful McQueen was in his casting.
Another example of this is Elizabeth Debicki as Alice. Due to her wide blue eye, slim and almost ethereal looking physique, Debicki’s Alice could have very easily fallen into the damsel in distress trope, but she didn’t. Alice is a character that grew and found her strength as time went on. Both men and women underestimated Alice based solely on her looks, but on more than one occasion she shows that she more than just a pretty face. She takes the imitative and stands up to her mother and Veronica.
Co-written by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects) Widows uses the planning and execution of the heist as a vehicle to show how four women of very different economic and familial backgrounds learn what they are capable of when everyone else underestimates them. Everything about Widows works seamlessly, the editing and score help to balance it, and characters like Jatemme played to menacing perfection by Daniel Kaluuya, are what grounds and balances the film and makes it easily one of the year’s best films.
There are very subtle touches in the film such as the background music like “Whiter Shade of Pale” and dialogue that when examined comments on the state of American politics and how issues such as race, gender and immigration are being used by politicians to manipulate the people, and makes you think about who the real criminals are.
Widows premiered in the Gala Presentations section of the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and is currently showing in North American theatres.
Carolyn is a Freelance Film Critic, Journalist, and Podcaster – and avid live tweeter. Member of the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), her published work can be found on But Why Tho, The Beat, Observer, and many other sites. As a critic, she believes her personal experiences and outlook on life, give readers and listeners a different perspective they can appreciate.