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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Widows movie review: the women left to clean up men’s messes (#LFF2018)

Widows green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
A heist movie that is gripping and badass, elegant and assured. You could ignore all the social-justice-warrior stuff and just enjoy this as a popcorn thriller. But what makes this so special is how it reexamines the genre’s clichés.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies about women; love the cast; love McQueen
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, female coscreenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

This is not your world,” someone — a man — says to Veronica Rawlings in the aftermath of the death of her husband, Harry. The man is talking about the Chicago criminal underworld in which Harry was a very successful mover — until, it seems, he no longer was; his work is what got him killed — but he might as well be talking about the whole big wide world. That world, the world, belongs to men. And women exist in it only at the sufferance of men. It’s what the men here think, and it’s even what the women think, or are at least resigned to… and this isn’t too far from what too many people in the real world think, too. But then suddenly the women here have had enough of this shit.

Planning a heist in a sauna: redefining women’s hotness.

Planning a heist in a sauna: redefining women’s hotness.

Director and cowriter (with Gillian Flynn: Gone Girl) Steve McQueen opens his Widows with a stunner of a sequence that intercuts the home lives of Harry’s gang of thieves with their last job later that night: a very sexy wakeup with Harry (Liam Neeson: The Commuter, Daddy’s Home 2) and Veronica (Viola Davis: Suicide Squad, Lila & Eve); an argument over money between Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo: Murder on the Orient Express, The Magnificent Seven) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez: The Fate of the Furious, Smurfs: The Lost Village); the morning-aftermath of Florek (Jon Bernthal: Pilgrimage, Baby Driver) apparently having punched Alice (Elizabeth Debicki: Peter Rabbit, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) in the face (she has a nasty black eye); and the cozy domesticity between Jimmy (Coburn Goss: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) and Amanda (Carrie Coon: Avengers: Infinity War, The Post), whom he leaves caring for their newborn. The gang’s getaway from that job-gone-wrong is after-dark, gritty, and bloody (and an incredible bit of action from McQueen like we haven’t seen before from him); Harry and Veronica’s home life is sleek and soft and clean in their shiny penthouse overlooking Lake Michigan (echoes of McQueen’s Shame, at least lifestyle-wise). It is family life and love interspersed with great violence; for Alice, the violence is mixed up in the love.

Family life and love is interspersed with great violence… but not like you’ve seen in other movies.
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It is family life and love as a subset of the men’s world of aggression and crime and violence, as their retreat from “the real world”… or at least that would be the perspective taken by the typical movie about aggression and crime and violence, in which the women are bystanders but also the caretakers of men. And still, even here, in a movie very sympathetic to the women, a movie all about the women dealing with the world their men have left them, it is only with great difficulty that these particular women will later come together and do something for themselves. Or try to.

I mean, that is the point of Widows, to flip the script and give the women center stage in a drama not of their making but one they cannot simply exit. Men leave women in the shit. Women join forces in an attempt to dig themselves out of the shit. But the men and their decisions that set out the rules of the world have made that tougher than it might have been by fostering in the women a wariness of one another, as if they don’t have more in common than husbands whose unfinished criminal business has put them all in danger. Or even merely that that wouldn’t be more than enough to forge a bond between them.

“Yes, our heist planning involves Tupperware. You got a problem with that?”

“Yes, our heist planning involves Tupperware. You got a problem with that?”

So it is only with great initial contempt that Veronica corrals Alice and Linda into a scheme to pull off the next heist Harry had planned; he left behind his detailed notes on it for his wife as a kind of insurance payoff for her. Which, thank god he did, because the guy Harry was stealing from in the job that got him killed — and that burned up the cash haul — has come to Veronica and demanded payback. The “This is not your world” guy implores Veronica to just offer Harry’s notebook as the payback, but she’s all, Fuck that shit: I’m gonna steal the $5 million Harry was gonna steal, and I’m gonna get away with it because nobody expects nothing of women. (Amanda wants nothing to do with them. They later enlist Belle [Cynthia Erivo: Bad Times at the El Royale] in the plot; she has *ahem* some very particular skills they need.)

But there are so many hurdles to overcome, and not all of them are connected to the fact that the women are not hardened criminals, or any kind of criminals. They are about how men made them enemies; some of the insults and the sniping that come out of their mouths about one another — particularly the barbs from smooth, sophisticated Veronica aimed at the much younger, lower-class Alice — sound like men’s words, the words men use to castigate women and keep them in their place.

Not a spoiler, but they might get past this. They might find some feminist common ground. Widows might end up being a great movie about how hard-won women’s solidarity can sometimes be when it is in the best interests of men to prevent that happening.

Widows might end up being a great movie about how hard-won women’s solidarity can sometimes be.
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Meanwhile, there is a parallel story about corruption in Chicago politics going on. An election for alderman, a sort of local municipal councilor, in a mostly black and poor Chicago ward, is in the offing, between Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell: The Beguiled, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), who hopes to “inherit” the seat from his father, Tom (Robert Duvall: The Judge, Jack Reacher), stepping down because of poor health, and Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who, if he wins, would be the first black alderman in this district. The election will connect to Harry’s old life of crime and Veronica’s new one eventually, but in the meantime, there’s a lot going on about how men — and especially white men — perpetuate their power and service their own needs above everyone else’s, even when they might seem generous and beneficent toward those less privileged, and about how the likes of Harry and his unequivocally felonious nature and career are not all that different from the likes of Jack Mulligan, the supposedly respectable leader. One amazing scene sees Jack being called out by his aide and — I think we’re meant to infer — lover, Siobhan (Molly Kunz), who screams at him to “man up” and do what he needs to do in order to secure his election and his authority. In an astonishingly perceptive directorial choice, McQueen place his camera for this scene outside the car in which this dressing-down occurs — we see the entire sequence as if we are sitting on the hood of the car and are somehow overhearing it. Because the ways in which women — and in particular white women — prop up the patriarchy are hidden behind support that publicly looks only smiling and silent. But it’s a lot more proactive than that.

Men: awful, yet cuddly.

Men: awful, yet cuddly.

There are amazing performances here: from Davis, who stalks through the film like she intends to own it (she does); from Daniel Kaluuya (Black Panther, Get Out) as candidate Manning’s brother and enforcer, who is absolutely terrifying in his cold, murderous stillness; from Farrell, as a scared man who, it seems, is too cowardly to opt out of the toxic masculinity he has been pushed into; from, honestly, the entire cast. McQueen’s presentation is elegant and assured: this is a heist movie this is gripping and badass, and if you just want to ignore all the overt social-justice-warrior stuff, I guess you could do that and still enjoy this as a popcorn thriller. But really, what makes Widows so special as a popcorn thriller is that it is reexamining all of the genre’s clichés, all of cinema’s clichés, about who commits crime, and why, and subtly asks us why we forgive some cinematic criminals, and why we enjoy their escapades. (Widows would make a terrific double feature with Ocean’s Eight, a somber contrast to its humor. They’re both saying much the same thing.) Many cinematic cautionary tales about a life of crime offer up the warning, as this one does, that “you reap what you sow.” Not many do so in ways that, as Widows does, are this skeptical about that supposition, but also this approving of the small bit of reaping that is delivered.

viewed during the 62nd BFI London Film Festival


Click here for my ranking of this and 2018’s other theatrical releases.


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green light 4.5 stars

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Widows (2018) | directed by Steve McQueen
US/Can release: Nov 16 2018
UK/Ire release: Nov 06 2018

MPAA: rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual content/nudity
BBFC: rated 15 (strong violence, sex, very strong language)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Aaron Jones

    Glad to read how you feel about this movie, I saw it at a festival and loved it for all the reasons you cite.

  • RogerBW

    Lynda La Plante wrote the original Widows mini-series in 1983, and everybody knows social justice wasn’t invented until much later. (Worth a try…)

  • Danielm80

    VAGUE SPOILERS
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    .
    .
    The filmmakers have pretty clearly seen The Third Man. Some of the names seem like tributes to the characters in that movie, even the name of one of the cast members.

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