Dir. Steve McQueen; Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo
[3 out of 4 stars]
At one point in Widows (2018), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) asks ruefully, “Is everything a transaction?” The answer, in the context of both her conversation and the film, is yes. Everyone is individually fighting for what they need to survive, or what they believe they deserve. Corruption is rampant, people sell each other out, and Veronica (Viola Davis) tells her crew members, “If something goes wrong, you’re all on your own.” Widows is a complex, dynamic film that weaves together a number of plots and characters, all culminating in a heist thriller that also takes on race, gender, and class.
The plot is simple (on the surface). Veronica, Alice, and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) are attempting to steal $5 million (Belle [Cynthia Erivo] also joins up near the end when the crew needs a driver). The back story, however, is far more complicated. These women do not know each other at all; they are thrown together because their husbands are killed when a job goes wrong, blowing up not only the men but also the $2 million they recently stole from Alderman candidate Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry). Manning comes to Veronica for the money and informs her she has one month to pay him back, or else. (The “or else” is manifested in Manning’s brother Jatemme [Daniel Kaluuya], an indifferently violent man.) Also involved is Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who is heavily favored in the Alderman race against Manning; his family has held the position for decades. As the film progresses, we learn how central the Mulligan family and its legacy are to both Manning and the three widows.
The film draws together these stories cleanly and cleverly. There’s Veronica’s grief over her late husband Harry (Liam Neeson) and the grief she still feels from losing her son years ago after he was shot and killed by a policeman; there’s the political tension between Manning and Mulligan; there’s the complicated relationship amongst the four women themselves. Widows is not really about the heist, which takes place only in the last 20 or so minutes of the film, but about violence and power. Editor Joe Walker pulls off quite a feat in intertwining all of these characters and plot lines in such a delicate way; we never feel lost or confused, and there’s just enough backstory and explanation to help us understand where we are and keep the story moving. But while Walker does a nice job tying all of this together, I don’t think it’s all necessary. My least favorite parts of Widows were the ones that involved the political fight, including Farrell, whom I generally love. While that aspect is necessary in terms of story development, it just takes away from our time with the four women, who are each stellar and are completely engrossing as a group. I was not expecting so much of the runtime to focus on this Alderman race side story and was looking forward to a clean, female-led heist movie.
Leading Widows is Davis, who really should have been the top-billed performer in a film long ago rather than staying relegated to supporting roles. I could not take my eyes off of her. In one of my favorite scenes, she stands alone, looking out a window, overcome with grief for her husband. She fills the screen with emotion, manifesting her grief in her physicality, and doing so much with simple facial expression. At another point shortly after her husband is killed, she lets out a strangled cry that gave me goosebumps. Due to her serious manner and lack of sympathy, the other women do not find her likeable (and why does she carry her dog Olivia around like a Bond villain?), but she is nonetheless absolutely captivating. My other favorite of the crew was Erivo. This was my first time seeing her in a film, and she comes into the group late, but wastes no time making herself known. She immediately establishes herself as a force to be reckoned with, just in the way she stands, and each line she delivers is layered, saying more than just the words themselves. Rodriguez and Debicki are also phenomenal; Debicki’s character slowly grows in strength and confidence as the story progresses, a transformation that is subtle yet powerful, while Rodriguez exudes a quiet determination that is riveting.
Circling these actors (at times literally) is a gorgeous sense of place, led by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. The camerawork is sweeping and oftentimes startling. There are many long shots that roam about the characters, filling us with nervous energy. In one, Jatemme is facing two henchmen who were supposed to be guarding the $2 million that was stolen. Their excuse is that they were practicing their rapping, so he invites them to show him what they’ve been working on. As they nervously begin, Kaluuya steps in close, staring directly at one of them, challenging him, encouraging him. Meanwhile, the camera circles on a dolly, edging in closer and closer until the culmination when Jatemme shoots both of them, after which it follows him as he walks blithely through the gym and out the door. In another long take, the camera roves across the ceiling (gilded) and around the room (lavish and ornate) before coming to land on Mulligan, then following him as he meanders out of the room. This camerawork is clean and measured, always giving us a sense of what sort of spaces our characters inhabit and how they differ from those of other characters. The four women, for example, come from vastly different social classes. While Veronica is wealthy, Alice loses all her wealth and is forced to become an escort; Belle and Linda are both single mothers — Belle works multiple jobs while Linda recently lost her store because her husband gambled away the rent payments. These differences and clashes are carefully displayed in certain wide or close-up shots. It’s a complex, layered film, and every scene has much more going on than what meets the eye.
Much about Widows feels especially of a piece with what’s occurring in America today, and not just because there’s a violent confrontation between a young Black boy and white police officers. It’s a fight for survival, a fight to make things better, in a myriad of ways, and much of it comes down to power and self respect. Unlike other heist movies, the prize for these women is pretty small ($5 million compared to Ocean’s Eleven’s  $150 million). These women don’t care about the politics or the money. But they, especially Alice, are learning to “ask for enough… ask for everything like I deserve it.” Davis sums it up best in a scene with Farrell: Mulligan tells her, “You reap with you sow,” and she steadily replies, “Let’s hope so.”