Widows movie review: the women left to clean up men’s messes (LFF 2018)

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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.

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.

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

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Aaron Jones
Aaron Jones
Sat, Nov 10, 2018 2:01am

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

Mon, Nov 12, 2018 6:47pm

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…)

Sun, Nov 18, 2018 3:24pm

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.

Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
reply to  Danielm80
Sun, Aug 16, 2020 4:05pm


I saw it today and I never once thought about The Third Man. Even though it had a similar plot twist. Then again the same thing could be said of another movie that came out last year…

Thu, Nov 22, 2018 2:32pm

Viola Davis acted the hell out of this. The first extended close up where she goes from overwhelming grief to almost but not quite suppressed grief to barely contained grief to momentary determination and back to suppressed grief is masterful. I really liked that the main antagonist of the film was the system itself (political and patriarchal) with most of the villains feeling just as trapped as the heroines, although McQueen and Flynn shoehorned a few too many SJW issues into an otherwise admirably subtle film. I won’t spoil anything, but there was a line in the “look how much America needs gun control” scenes that felt out of place. Ditto for the BLM scene, a couple of Duvall’s lines, and the heist preparation. The catcalling was handled perfectly – subtle and efficiently incorporated.

One of my favorite sequences was the introduction of the pastor of the megachurch (nice touch hiring a short actor for the role). It’s rare to see a wide release be so openly critical of religious hypocrisy and graft in African American neighborhoods. The film has three main issues holding it back from mainstream success, both stemming from a tension between it’s serious tone and the conventions of the heist genre. First of all, because of the excellent character development and careful world building, the preparation for the heist, and the heist itself are both too simple, rushed, and unsatisfying.

Secondly, Kaluuya’s scenes are introduced and shot in a way that leads the audience to identify with him positively. I heard many of the audience members in my predominantly African American neighborhood cheer and laugh during scenes of his that were meant to be horrifying. People have become conditioned to emotionally detach themselves when watching an action heist movie and assume that any violence onscreen is there primarily as a form of entertainment. This is not a typical Liam Neeson joint (thank goodness), but it can’t quite free itself from the expectations that it should glorify violence.

Thirdly, the film is very, very serious. These women cannot afford to joke around. There is no safety net – they are not doing this for a lark, this is their lives on the line. Some of the laughter at the Kaluuya scenes happens because the film doesn’t provide any comic moments to release the tension it builds. I appreciated the relentlessly somber mood, but mainstream audiences weaned on spectacle and/or melodrama will be left hanging by the slow burn of this story. I personally would have welcomed some humor stemming from an absurd or surprising situation during the runup to the heist, but I respect McQueen’s choice to keep everything grounded.

A couple sidenotes: best use of a dog in an action movie. I’ll echo Bill Chambers by saying this is the first time I’ve seen a doggie daycare scene and thought, “Shit’s about to get real.” Continuing evidence that Michelle Rodriguez can act – why hasn’t she been getting more work? Debicki walks a romantic tightrope throughout the movie, teetering near, but never falling into the whore with a heart of gold pit – I wish she would have gotten a solid “breakup” scene, but then there wouldn’t be any dramatic tension at the end – I get it. Finally, this trend of directors showing up onscreen and talking to the audience right before the movie has to stop. Showing up in person at a premiere or special showing, sure, but the onscreen appearance threw me out of the world of the film for a few minutes as I imagined McQueen standing behind the camera. Do it a couple minutes into the end credits if you must, but that quick message stuff at the beginning is no good.

tl;dr I loved the movie, the directing is spectacular, Davis is awesome, but it crams in a little too much on-the-nose politics and occupies a tricky space between arthouse drama and big budget action heist flick, and as a result will probably not achieve mainstream success or recognition. Best supporting dog. A hair’s breadth from greatness.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  amanohyo
Sun, Aug 16, 2020 4:10pm

Continuing evidence that Michelle Rodriguez can act – why hasn’t she been getting more work?

We know why.

Finally, this trend of directors showing up onscreen and talking to the audience right before the movie has to stop.

This is the first I’ve heard about this ever happening as a regular thing (as opposed to a special event). Is this something you’re seeing regularly at regular multiplex screenings, and if so, where are you seeing these movies?

Sun, Aug 16, 2020 4:10pm

The Google Al Gore Rhythms have resonated with my showtimes search causing my pages to display a Widows ad that reveals the major twist of the film (not here, but on other sites). Sure, it’s super predictable, but still, if anyone reading this cares about major spoilers, try to avoid looking at any ad materials.

Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
Sun, Aug 16, 2020 4:04pm

I didn’t realize how much impact this film had on me until I came across one of my younger brothers watching the end of Aquaman on cable and found myself thinking, “Oh my God! That character played by a certain actress is so totally a Siobhan.”

So now we have a new female PCR to go along with Marla Singer and Catherine Trammell….