Widows: Action-packed analysis of women taking control

by Kristen Lopez

AFI Fest Review: Widows

Widows is a twisted examination of how men continually let women down while subtly exposing the filmic sexism of the heist film.

Director Steve McQueen is generally regarded for making emotionally vulnerable, provocatively powerful features. Hunger, Shame, and his Academy Award-winning feature, 12 Years a Slave, left audiences bereft, exhausted, and transported. Widows is a far cry from that trio of titles. Based on a British miniseries of the same name, Widows is a fast-paced actioner that subtly (and, at times, not so subtly) packs in larger themes regarding race, class, gender dichotomies, and the concept of ownership and who is allowed to (or not) make a life for themselves in America.

When Veronica’s (Viola Davis) husband dies during a heist gone wrong she is tasked with acquiring $2 million in a month to pay off Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). She enlists the help of the other widows from the previous heist in order to pull off her husband’s final job.

L-R: Elizabeth Debicki (back to camera), Cynthia Erivo, Viola Davis (back to camera), and Michelle Rodriguez star in Twentieth Century Fox’s WIDOWS. Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

Widows is a feast of different plotlines that become a touch gluttonous. The commercials and opening scene — in which we watch the fiery end result of Harry’s (Liam Neeson) botched robbery — would have you believe it’s a straightforward heist thriller. But McQueen, who co-wrote the script alongside Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn, goes deeper to explore the need for female unity and the underwhelming support of male entitlement.

Viola Davis stoically underplays Veronica. She isn’t just the ringleader but the galvanizing force to remind the other aforementioned widows that “no one thinks we’ve got the balls” to pull off the job. A former teacher, Veronica has grown accustomed to a sheltered life provided by her husband, and this need to get the money isn’t just to pay off a debt but to reclaim the muted autonomy she’s lost. The same holds for all the other women in the cast, from Michelle Rodriguez’s Linda, a dress shop owner whose husband sold her store to pay bookies, to Elizabeth Debicki’s Alice, a woman who’s been physically and emotionally battered by everyone in her life. Upon meeting, they’re guarded. The actresses’ expertly show, with their downcast eyes and attempts to be tough, that society has prohibited them from being friends.

Davis capably anchors the movie with her simmering rage kept back just enough so that when the film’s eventual twist — which, if you’ve read any of Flynn’s novels is evident fairly quickly — happens, it becomes a chance for the actress to unleash a torrent of emotions. And yet Davis never takes away from the other ladies’ impact.

L-R: Michelle Rodriguez, Viola Davis, and Elizabeth Debicki star in Twentieth Century Fox’s WIDOWS. Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

The film packs a lot of material into its runtime while never diminishing the characterizations of any of the women. Elizabeth Debicki continues to show why she’s one of the best rising actresses. Alice, quick to throw out a smile at the risk of being smacked, isn’t written as the typical “battered” wife. Gone is the sorrow and in its place is a critique of a world that openly makes relationships based on money the only means to fake romance. Debicki’s grace and beauty are meant to be artificial; Alice has played a part her whole life and has hidden her true emotions. Not even able to drive, Alice is the most hobbled by male attention because no one expects anything of her.

Rodriguez along with Cynthia Erivo as Belle aren’t focused on with the same emotional heft as Davis or Debicki’s characters, but they each are given a contrasting lifestyle that makes their success or failure even more dire. Each has a child to raise and come from less affluent circumstances, expanding McQueen’s world and reminding audiences that issues like poverty have vastly different outcomes depending on race and gender.

Daniel Kaluuya and Brian Tyree Henry in Twentieth Century Fox’s WIDOWS. Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

Really, what the script says is we must lay the problems of this world at the feet of the men in power, or those who want to be. Brian Tyree Henry’s Jamal Manning is a flawed man, transitioning from drug dealing to politics, which the script argues don’t really seem that different when you think of who’s being shaken down. Henry is frightening, but more in the vein of a manipulative schemer than an outright murderer. Threatening a dog is where Henry shows his amazing ability to haunt you, but the true sociopath is Manning’s brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya). Whether it’s watching television while a man is being beaten to death or casually stalking someone from his car while trying to learn a foreign language, Kaluuya is haunting. Colin Farrell’s Jack Mulligan is the typical legacy politician we’ve seen in several movies, and while Farrell is dependable, his wonky Chicago accent and general exaggerations in performance leave this one of his lesser performances.

DF-01120_1123_1134_R2_COMP – Viola Davis and Cynthia Erivo star in Twentieth Century Fox’s WIDOWS. Photo Credit: Merrick Morton.

The actual heist, coming in over 90 minutes in, is one of the film’s best setpieces. The score, the cinematography, everything is breathless and fluid, though it does feel like it’s taken a long time to get there. The problem is that, while the script is beautiful, there’s far too much happening. Scenes of Harry and Veronica’s son, the history of the Mulligan family and Jack’s relationship with his racist father (played by Robert Duvall reenacting his Newsies audition), the background of Chicago’s own war with its haves and have-nots, makes for a movie that feels more suited to its limited series origins than a two-hour movie.

You can also pinpoint exactly which scenes are Flynn written and which McQueen. At times it leaves the movie feeling like a mish-mash of expressive human drama on the one hand, and an overly simplistic melodrama on the other. This isn’t to say Widows suffers — it’s highly entertaining — just that it tries to do too much.

Regardless of how packed it is, Widows is a rollicking good time that reminds women of truths they’ve known for generations: always do it yourself. Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki are fantastic, with Rodriguez and Erivo pulling up the rear (which still works, but they needed more). Steve McQueen shows his light touch and you’ll be ready to start robbing as well.

Kristen Lopez has a Masters from CSUS and spends her time watching movies and reading books. She's worked as a TCM Social Producer and has contributed articles to Flavorwire, The Playlist, Pacific Standard and Film School Rejects.