Widows is the fourth film by director Steve McQueen, following 2013’s Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave. Although a heist film based on Lynda La Plante’s 1983 ITV series, it’s no less intelligent than its predecessor and weaves issues of corruption, race and gender politics in to an engrossing and captivating thriller.
The film introduces the main characters each in relation to the man whose loss will make them the widows of the title. The shots are interspersed with the heist that kills the men. At the same time, these scenes introduce the weaknesses of the respective men. Henry is a bank robber, obsessed with money; Florek beats up his wife between robberies and Carlos is a hopeless gambler who’s been taking his wife’s shop rental money to pay gambling debts.
One of the more shocking elements of this opening is that both Liam Neeson’s Henry Rawlings and Jon Bernthal’s Florek are dispatched in the opening minutes. Neeson appears in multiple subsequent flashbacks, but it’s clear that the widows themselves are the focus.
All three of the ‘widows’ face problems related to their gender and the men in their life. Veronica (Viola Davis) is dragged into the life of her robber husband, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), is recovering from domestic violence and needs to show that she is a smart, resourceful woman. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) is a business owner whose living is destroyed by controlling, gambling, husband. She finds it difficult to live as single mother – similar to her babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo) – who has to take any work she can get to make ends meet. Belle also works in a salon whose successful business is at the whim of a local, male, politician.
However, It’s the seeming weaknesses of the women that come to be their greatest strengths. In one scene, Alice notices a woman and her child at a gun show, and starts telling a story that’s actually true about how she had been controlled by her husband, but pretending to be a Russian. In doing so she persuades the women to help her buy guns for the heist. When Alice has bought the guns, she walks out of the gun show with guns and a hot dog – almost showing her acceptance into American culture when she’s been successful. She gradually becomes confident that she will be able to “get wherever I need to go.”
In some ways this is a stereotypical heist film. The first act shows us the impetus and the plan being put together. At times this act appears like it’s focusing more on character than plot, but as the film progresses it’s clear that this is far from true and each seed planted is like Checkov’s gun. Act two shows the gang being brought together, often because of a distinct lack of alternative options, and in the final 20 minutes, we see the heist being carried and its aftermath. And yet, this is all done with such depth of character from an outstanding cast that it’s far from a usual heist film.
Veronica Rawlings’s grief for her husband, Henry, is shown through her being represented in reflections – those of the windows of her apartment, or in her dressing room. As though the death has made her incomplete. The reflections also give insight into her consideration of her self-image and who she is becoming. In her grief, she’s haunted by Henry in her thoughts and dreams and often through a notebook she discovers that outlines the future heist. To most she’s hard-hearted (with a “stick up her butt”, as Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) puts it. But in private she’s broken and scared, being dragged from her life as the head of a teacher’s union into this dark and unknown world. She relies on her focus on the task at hand to keep her going: “We have a lot to do – crying isn’t on the list”.
Political corruption in the film is represented by two generations of Mulligans. Tom, played by Robert Duvall, is a racist alderman, disgusted by the changing demographics of the Chicago neighbourhood he’s been leading. He tells his son Jack “I don’t want you to be the first Mulligan to lose to a n*gger”. Jack distances himself this racism, however one a scene we hear the audio from outside the car, seeing only the reflections on the outside window, as though a hot microphone has been left recording the conversation. Within the car he starts questioning his wife, Siobhan, on whether she has ever “slept with a black guy” showing the racism has made its way down the generations.
Jack Mulligan is facing a black upstart, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who he meets in the early stages of the film, with the hopes of getting him to withdraw. Jamal is not interested only in the salary of the role, stated as $104,000 – his brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) points out they could “make more than that in a week”. Jamal instead sees the fact that he could use the role to leverage much more money than that, following the footsteps of his white predecessors.
A constant question of the film is how much Veronica is corrupted by the position in which she finds herself. It’s made very clear that she’s stealing the money not out of a sense of greed, but necessity – something the other widows reflect. However, when she meets a former associate of her husband, Bobby Welsh (Kevin J. O’Connor), he suggest she give up the notebook itself, using the biblical phrase that she should “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”. But the question remains – can the widows keep their putative purity whilst engaging in this messy business?
The notion of purity, redemption, and religious imagery returns regularly to the film. Aside from Bobby’s phrasing, the politicians fight over the backing of a prominent local preacher, and Jamal’s headquarters is a former church, with two massive crucifixes above him – one wooden, one in the lights in the ceiling. Again, the decisions of all characters are compared to what is right and correct (and generally found wanting) and the church is no refuge from the prevalent corruption.
The work of director of photography, Sean Bobbitt is outstanding. In one scene, Daniel Kaluuya’s menacing Jatemme deals with two rapping gang members in a gym while the camera circles him as though it’s marking him in a game of basketball. When the local preacher is introduced, however, the camera stays locked to his face for minutes while he delivers his sermon.
The writing, by Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen is excellent. Characters reveal their intentions through word and action, but never is there a moment where the plot is driven by characters spouting exposition at each other – something that most heist films find it hard to avoid. Each character feels real and driven by clear motivations; the audience is left to make up their own mind about who deserves support. Every character is a victim of history, but some deal with this better than others.
The film reminded me of The Wire: almost all of the characters are trapped by circumstance. However, what Tom Mulligan is the one that states the true message in a heated discussion with his son: “What I’ve learned is that you reap what you sow.”