About halfway through Steve McQueen’s Widows, Viola Davis’ character Veronica meets Cynthia Erivo’s Belle. It is a tense scene where the two have at most three lines of dialogue. The scene is riveting not for what is said; but for what goes unsaid.
Widows is a heist film with little care for the actual heist. The script by Gillian Flynn jumps through all the familiar genre hoops, but refreshingly not in the ways you would expect. Most heist movies revolve exclusively around men. What few women that do exist in those films are often forced to use their bodies or sexuality as weapons or tools.
Flynn’s script shoves the men to the margins and shines the spotlight on the women. She does so in a way that is unexpected. The men in these movies often form a reluctant camaraderie. Even if they start off uneasy in the beginning by the end they will at least have earned respect and an induction of an elite brotherhood. Luckily Flynn and McQueen are as bored by that as we are.
The women in Widows, for starters, are not professionals. They are the wives or girlfriends of career criminals. The crew led by Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) are killed in a hail of police fire after a botched robbery. McQueen opens up Widows with Davis and Neeson sensually embracing each other in bed. He interrupts the scene with the ill-fated robbery itself. Cross-cutting the sudden violence of the crime with the sudden intimacy of a lived-in and well-worn relationship.
Soon after Harry’s death, Veronica is visited by Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry); the man who Harry stole from. Harry and his men died in a fireball of an explosion as they tried to get away in a van. Jamal tells Veronica that she now owes him the money, two million dollars, Harry stole. She has only a few weeks to get the money, somehow.
The other subversion from Flynn’s script is how Veronica recruits the other wives and girlfriends. She calls them up and essentially blackmails them into helping her. The other women have their own motivations but their decision to go through with the heist is not entirely their own. Veronica threatens to take them down with her if they do not help by ratting them out to Jamal. Veronica tries to soften the threat by promising a split of three million dollars.
One of the great treasures of Flynn’s script is the little things. Jamal doesn’t know about the other ladies because the only member of the gang he knew was Harry. He knows Harry, tracks down Veronica, and thus puts the onus on her. Veronica finds a book of plans and notes detailing a job, a score of five million dollars, that Harry was planning. So through that, she hunts down the other ladies.
But it’s how each character has their own motivations. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), the estranged wife of one of Harry’s men, needs the money. She ran a clothing store for Quinceaneras. The store’s lease was in her husband’s name. After her husband’s death she discovers, the payments she was making to him, were gambled away. With his death, the mob, to whom, he owed money to, are repossessing the store. Since the store is in his name she has nothing. Even her kids are in danger of being taken away by her mother-in-law because she now has no way to care for them.
Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) is a woman mourning the loss of her abusive boyfriend. Stunned by his death she finds herself faced with moving back home with her mother Agnieska (Jackie Weaver). Her mother suggests Alice try sex work. Flynn and McQueen are very careful to show that sex work itself is not a bad thing. But that for Alice it is not something she wants. In one scene between her and Agnieska we begin to see maybe her boyfriend is not the first to abuse her. The way Weaver’s cajoling turns into psychological warfare is a truly menacing and terrifying moment in the film.
Even Jamal’s threat isn’t based on a mindless need for revenge. He needs that money. Jamal is running for Alderman of his local Chicago district. A gang leader himself he wants out. He’s tired and he wants the respect that doesn’t have to come at the end of a gun. The two million dollars that Harry stole was meant for his campaign. A campaign that is going to be bloody and treacherous since he’s up against a second-generation politician, Jack Mulligan (Colin Ferrell). Jack’s father Tom (Robert DuVall) is practical political royalty in Chicago and Tom is struggling to fill his shoes.
In many ways, Widows has many of the same flaws as The Crimes of Grindelwald. But, as the saying goes, the difference is all the difference. Both movies are dense with stories but with Widows the payoff is within the movie itself and not passed on to future installments on empty promises. McQueen understands how to work with actors and understands how camera movement and placement can enhance a scene.
Widows is dense in a way that is intoxicating. The heist itself feels almost like an afterthought. Though much of Widows involves us watching the preparation, we never see them rehearse or talk directly about the heist. So when it does happen we are both surprised by how mundane it is and caught off guard by things Flynn’s script has cleverly been laying out along the way.
Cynthia Erivo’s Belle comes in halfway through the movie and, if you recall, she was my favorite thing about Bad Times at the El Royale. Here she is every bit as charismatic and brilliant as she was then. Belle is a hairstylist, who also does part-time nanny work for Linda. Her arrival brings with it a new set of class issues.
McQueen and Flynn use the genre to highlight and explore what life in America, as a woman, a woman of color, and for people of color. They explore the sometimes messy but oftentimes distinct class divides between them. Veronica has worked for the teacher’s union and is used to living in a luxury apartment and having things her way. Her brusqueness and clipped way of delivering orders rub the other women the wrong way.
While waiting for Alice to arrive for a meeting, Veronica complains to Linda about her lateness. “Give her a break,” Linda replies. When Veronica asks what’s so difficult about getting someplace on time, Linda snaps, “Because our lives are more complicated.”
Yet, when Belle joins the group there is immediate friction between her and Veronica. The two share very little screen time with each other but when they do it is electric. Flynn wisely gives the two few words, while McQueen sits back and lets Davis and Erivo express their emotions and thoughts through their eyes. Their differences and similarities are too messy and complex to be put into words. But the magic of cinema is how much can be expressed through an actor’s face than through any pithy line of dialogue.
One of my favorite scenes involves Veronica and Alice arguing. Tempers rise and Veronica slaps Alice. The scene is rich in its emotional complexity. Alice’s reaction is, not just one of my favorite moments of the film, but one of my favorite moments of the year. It showcases a breadth of character development and understanding that so much of Hollywood movies tragically lack.
McQueen and Sean Bobbitt, the cinematographer, utilize tracking shots in an elegant fashion. As opposed to most filmmakers who use tracking shots as a form of visual chest thumping, McQueen and Bobbitt choose to visually show us the way neighborhood’s change after only a block or two. The duo embraces the technique as a sleek streamlined way to deliver visual and expository cues adding layers to an already multi-textured movie.
Combined with Joe Walker’s editing and Hans Zimmer’s subdued score, Widows gracefully dances along where other films stumble and goosestep. Walker’s cuts are pristine and exact giving Widows a lean but rich structure. With no less than five characters to concern itself with, Widows never seems bloated or aimless.
Debicki is a towering actress, whose height, McQueen doesn’t shy away from. Debicki makes herself look how she feels, small without ever sacrificing her natural height. I mention this because historically Hollywood has always gone out of its way to shrink its women to make its leading men seem bigger. The rare exceptions being action heroines. The likes of Geena Davis and Gal Gadot tends to leave Hollywood stunned as to what to do; all because they lack the imagination to even come up with a role for them.
McQueen allows Debicki room to give a stunning performance. No mean feat considering she’s in the same movie and often times alongside Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, and Voila ‘frickin’ Davis. But she holds her own and almost steals every scene she’s in, all because of a gesture or how she holds herself.
Rodriguez has the least to do but what she does in no less stellar. She commands every syllable and line as she struggles to figure how to go about even being a criminal. Consumed by the love of her children and desolated by the loss of her store she is, much like Veronica, adrift in confusion and fear. Watch her face as she argues with the man stripping her store as he tells her she is not in charge and is foolish for thinking so. It is a face of both restrained rage and sheer tumultuous anxiety at losing everything in a blink of an eye.
Davis is, as always, amazing and riveting. One of the great talents of our time she gives us a deeply flawed woman in Veronica Rawlings. Steeped in mourning, she is clear-eyed enough to understand these are dangerous men. Few things rival watching an actress at the peak of her craft, sinking her teeth into a meaty role and showing you new depths of her abilities.
McQueen and Flynn sublimely compliment each other. Every frame, every cut, every moment is a delight as Widows walks the tightrope of being a subversive genre movie. Widows dissects political corruption, explores grief, showcases the varying lived differences in the lives of women and women of color, as well as class boundaries and rivalries. Rarely do big-budget Hollywood movies contain this many ideas, let alone even one idea.
The more I think about Widows the more I love it and the more I find to love. Howard Hawks was once asked what makes a movie great. “Three great scenes and no bad ones.” If my math is correct, considering there are zero bad scenes, and considerably more than three great ones, Widows more than qualifies.