"Widows": A Different Kind of Heist Movie
Photo Courtesy 20th Century Fox
Steve McQueen’s Widows opens with a passionate kiss between Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) and her husband Harry (Liam Neeson), before cutting to a brutal, chaotic robbery carried out by Harry and his partners. More jarring cuts show the serene domestic lives of the other partners and their wives—Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and Amanda (Carrie Coon)—as the robbers attempt to evade the authorities. This is not a heist movie about hardened, macho criminals, but rather, it’s about the now widows learning to take on those roles themselves.
For most moviegoers, the appeal of Widows comes from it being an R-rated crime thriller about four women—Veronica, Linda, Alice, and Belle (Cynthia Erivo), Linda’s babysitter who is recruited later in the film—who must defy all odds and expectations to pull off a daring heist; women of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds coming together to take over their husbands’ work. However, Widows is not here to just send a message of female empowerment (though that is a feat in itself), nor is it interested in following the formula of a typical heist movie. Instead, it’s more of a character study about realistic people.
Each of these women have their own skills, flaws, and goals. The relationships between them are the core of the film, but they are wary of each other initially and the film takes its time to build their friendships. They do not start off as ditzy and incompetent, but they do not become elite action heroes either.
Even Rodriguez, who is known for playing “tough” characters in action movies, gets a role that is more emotional and nuanced than physical. Each of the women have arcs about moving on from their husbands’ deaths, becoming confident in their own abilities, and providing for themselves and—in Linda and Belle’s case—their children.
Widows’ B-plot revolves around a political campaign between Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) for the alderman position in Chicago’s South Side. Jamal’s confrontation with Veronica about the money that Harry owed him is what first inspires her to plan the heist and recruit the other widows.
Robert Duvall plays Jack’s pressuring father, while Daniel Kaluuya plays Jamal’s brother and enforcer. These characters all pose a threat to the heist’s success, but the fact that they underestimate these women—that they do not expect the wives of robbers to be capable of such ingenious criminal activity—is what makes the heist possible for the main female characters in the first place.
Unlike typical heist films—including last June’s Ocean’s 8, which similarly focused on an all-female crew—the actual heist in Widows is fairly short. There are surprises and moments of tension, but the film doesn’t entertain the audience with 30 minutes to an hour of a convoluted plan involving disguises, switcheroos, and hackers furiously typing on a keyboard before announcing “I’m in!” The relationships built between the characters and the self-confidence they each develop are far more important than the planning or execution of the heist.
Davis is as powerful and commanding as always in the lead performance which, in a just world, would earn her another Oscar nomination (if not a win). The other standout among the four leads is Debicki, who nails both the initial fragility of Alice—whose husband abused her—and the inner strength that she develops.
Kaluuya is ruthless and terrifying in a complete 180 from his breakout performance in Get Out. Meanwhile, Neeson’s role is surprisingly more complex and emotional than the usual action heroes that he plays, reminding us that his acting range goes beyond growling threats into cell phones.
In total, Widows is not the heist action-thriller that the trailers may have advertised. But if you want to see a grounded crime drama that manages to tackle gender, race, and class in the modern era, all while telling a universal story about the pain of and recovery from personal loss, then you should absolutely see Widows.