From Black Panther breaking box office records and Hollywood standards to a number of films centered around women challenging stereotypes and the restrictive Hollywood norm, film in 2018 has been another game changer. With an incredible pack of films leading us into award season (the Golden Globe nominations were just released this week), there are those that remain behind and threaten to dim.
One film is arguably among the most overlooked. With a strong cast and crew behind it, as well as rave critic reviews (holding a firm 91% on Rotten Tomatoes), Widows seems to be falling by the wayside in lieu of other releases. I’m not suggesting those other films or nominees are inferior but rather that Steve McQueen’s tale of survival and the complex nature of female relationships should be held in the same light. Widows, in all its overlooked glory, shines just as bright.
The lack of promotion following its release by 20th Century Fox in late November is staggering. Fox had another film out the same weekend, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, which it put a big promo push behind yet virtually ignored Widows, not giving the film what it was worth.
Widows, a modern take on the British television series of the same name by Lynda La Plante, aired in the 1980s when Steve McQueen was a budding teenager. Similar to how Luca Guadagnino’s richly crafted, violent remake of Suspiria stemmed from his fascination with the original film, a remake of Widows became McQueen’s infatuation and eventually, his passion project. Instead of being drawn to a coven of witches as Guadagnino was, McQueen was enthralled by another group of women who banded together to fight for their survival by pulling off a heist.
His interpretation of Widows contains the same heart, the same core story, but has gained an edge, a roughness. It has the bite and the pain of what it means to be a woman, a person of color, and truly, just someone existing in today’s world. The film has a pressing relevancy that McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn have seamlessly woven into the plot, with Viola Davis at the helm of the operation and a forceful supporting cast behind her. The story is rich with drama and realism amidst extreme circumstances. It’s taut with tension and often makes you laugh. One of the main appeals of Widows is its inability to fall into a singular genre as it’s not only a thriller but a drama that teeters on being labeled a mystery or action film as well.
After losing her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) to the darkness he daringly committed his life to (a life of violence, crime, and theft), Veronica (Davis) has one month to save herself from the mess he and his merry band of heathens left her in. The night Harry and his men died, they took gangster-turned-politician Jamal Manning’s money with them. As the election for the alderman of the 18th ward nears, Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry) and his brother Jatemme, a deliciously evil Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), want what’s owed. When Jamal comes knocking at Veronica’s door to demand his due, and she threatens to call the police, he reminds her the cops could care less about the widow of a dead criminal. “You’re nothing now.” Instead, they force Veronica to pay her husband’s debt or forfeit her life.
With the help of the notebook Harry left behind detailing his previous jobs, as well as those next, Veronica quickly forms a plan to pull off a heist, enlisting the widows of her husband’s team. As time slips by, they must gather a multitude of resources (a getaway van, guns, security codes, etc.) and prepare themselves to pull off the unfamiliar and dangerous task of a sting operation. Fearful as they are, it is the only way to tie up the loose ends left by their husbands and escape their collective misery. Women being forced to reckon with the ruin that men have left in their path… not at all familiar. Scoff.
At the start of the film, Alice, beautifully portrayed by a standout Elizabeth Debicki (The Tale, The Great Gatsby), is practically a shell of a person. She is fragile and anxious, unsure of what to do, eager to step out of her own skin. When we’re properly introduced to her, she suggests getting a job which, for her, symbolizes being free of the toxic dependency that’s become so normalized in her life and was used to keep her from independence. We witness the aftermath of her marriage, rife with violence at the hands of her late husband, Florek (Jon Bernthal), as well as a fraught and abusive relationship with her mother. Alice has little money but, as her mother reminds her, an abundance of good looks and is pushed to sell her body to get by.
Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) is a mother of two and following the crew’s funeral discovers her late husband Carlos cheated her out of her business, a store selling quinceañera supplies. As she scrambles to stay afloat, her mother-in-law, angered by her son’s death and never a fan of Linda, threatens to take her children.
These three women have seemingly been reduced to nothing, left stranded to fend for themselves. To see them rise to the occasion is wonderful. We’re buckled in, gripped to their plight, down for it all, ready to do whatever McQueen and especially, powerhouse Viola Davis asks of us.
Although planning and pulling off a heist is certainly in the realm of extraordinary and unusual circumstances, these are ordinary and real women. If you were to pull off a heist, this is probably how you’d do it. When Linda asks how to find the blueprint of the room they have to break into, Veronica responds with, “By being smarter than you are right now. We work out what we need and we take it from there.” They have to think on their feet, use what they know, and be more capable than previously believed. The job quickly gives them a strength and steeliness that was previously unimaginable. By the end of the film (and without spoilers), each of them has transformed into drastically different and better versions of themselves. They’re free, they’ve made it.
We live in a world where power being stripped from women is pervasive which makes watching these widows reclaim theirs invigorating. We want them to succeed but it is by no means, as in life, a smooth ride to the finish. While it may seem as if Alice, Linda, and Veronica have nothing in common, they soon discover similarities and bond, regardless of their differences. They’re forced by happenstance to rely upon and support one another. There’s no time for judgment or pettiness – attributes often applied to the idea of women working together, usually by men.
One of the many subplots of the film focuses on the racial disparity within Chicago’s communities but also within its political system. Colin Farrell transforms into the witty and seedy politician Jack Mulligan. He is eager to keep the Mulligan name next to the title of “alderman,” but as the 18th Ward has been redrawn, Jamal Manning enters the race. The Mulligans rule with privilege and generational power – corruption is their middle name. One of the best shots in the film exposes Jack’s half-assed and duplicitous attempt to raise awareness about empowering minority women in the workplace. When he gets in his car the camera follows the shockingly short journey from the impoverished community within the ward to Jack’s wealthier neighborhood where the seeds of gentrification have been planted and are steadily growing. While both Mulligan and Manning lead with malevolence, Jamal yearns to represent the Chicago he knows and the people in it, and rightfully so.
Steve McQueen has earned massive acclaim with his previous films, such as 12 Years A Slave and Shame, as has Gillian Flynn with the mammoth success of Gone Girl and Sharp Objects. Both are arguably some of the most important voices in film, TV, and literature today and they’ve tackled themes of domestic violence, poverty, police brutality, racism, sexism, abuse, and political corruption in this remake, all of which frequent our news feeds and discussions while fueling fear and anger.
McQueen’s notability in the “arthouse” cinema combined with Flynn’s growing audience, which favors darker and more fleshed out depictions of women (given to us again here), topped by Viola Davis’ star power should have been enough to draw a larger audience and garner greater attention. Hell, Widows should also have benefited from action fans with the inclusion of Liam Neeson and Michelle Rodriguez, not to mention the overall genre mashup, yet it’s considered a box office flop.
And yet, the shots stay with me. One of my favorites frames a cigarette between Veronica’s fingers, the smoke curling against the closeup of her lips as she stands at her window in the early morning. The light is pink outside. Inside, blue. We know she is taking a moment, stilling herself – she is gathering her words, clutching onto what she knows she must do. Even in violence, the framing is beautiful – cracked glass and a car shuddering from slamming into concrete, blood spilling from a wound, the light yellow, honing in on the damage. The reflections of Alice and Veronica in windows lit by night, the green and yellow lights of the surrounding city blurring into the softness of the image, the skyscrapers beyond almost faded. Another favorite is a fractured image within the final stretch, the last handful of minutes where we see two characters in a diner. Mirrors in which both women are seen, though across different ends of the room, pulled together and reflecting their gazes and the quiet tension between them.
It’s rare that a project holds this kind of relevancy and diversity. It’s important to see films like this so others of a similar nature can be made. Perhaps, if released in another month this year, or simply at a time with fewer films competing for public attention, Widows would have received the recognition it deserves. Viola Davis at the very least deserves a nomination for Best Actress alongside a Best Director nomination for McQueen.
If you haven’t already, please see Widows. In the words of Barry Jenkins, “Tell a friend, tell a friend, tell a friend.”