Viola Davis = fire
A fusion of stark brutality, underhand crimes and complex systems of political and personal power, Widows is far more just than an awards-season thriller, but a sharp and forceful indictment of corruption on every level of society. It’s not often that I’m able to see a movie and feel physically moved by it, but I sat through this with teeth clenched, it was so tense. Slick, jarring, and paced perfectly, it incorporates slow moments of emotional catharsis, crescendoing into a criminal denouement of theatrical proportions.
The remake of Lynda La Plante’s 1982 British miniseries, Widows hails from a time (not so long ago!) where women were not encouraged to step out in the same way they are today. For that reason, it has a particularly strong resonance today and has been hailed as Steve McQueen’s masterpiece. The fact that it takes hours to think about and unpick afterward shows that it reaches deeper than one might think on initially seeing the film, and means that it will certainly spark debate about the manifold issues of class, race, gender, politics, religion, and family that it laid out.
Director: Steve McQueen
Release Date: November 16, 2018
In contemporary Chicago (circa 2008), four men work together to pull off a heist. One part Jason Bourne, one part an Ocean’s installment, it seems promising. But in a move that goes wrong, the frontrunners are killed, their heist abandoned and their widows grieving and left to deal with the fallout. Enter Veronica Rawlings — and there is little that can be said that may do Viola Davis justice. In her role, she is flawless, a grieving widow of criminal Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), who comes under threat from nondescript but brutal forces. Caught between a future with dark consequences and her desire for dignity, freedom, and closure, she recruits the widows of her husband’s criminal group in order to pull off the heist they didn’t finish.
There were three broad ‘worlds,’ if you like, that the film operates in – all within the same constituency of a Chicago neighborhood, but spanning laterally across a huge racial and class divide. On the one hand, there is slippery politician Jack Mulligan (Collin Farrell), running for office and attempting to represent impoverished areas in order to bag all-important electoral votes. He delivers a sparsely-attended MWOW (Minority Women Own Work) talk neatly, unscrupulously, turning a blind eye to the fact that he is one of the most out-of-touch (racist) leaders of his area. This is represented superbly by an SUV drive from the talk to his colonial mansion a few blocks away. Within this world, but separately, lives Veronica. Her penthouse apartment is the hallmark of a wealthy and successful marriage, a house-trained, immaculately groomed pooch her pride and joy. Until the death of her husband, life seemed to be treating her well, but there is far more to Veronica than meets the eye.
Secondly, we’ve got the world of Latina mother and shopkeeper Linda (Fast and Furious’ Michelle Rodriquez), who is struggling to stay afloat and balance life as a parent and businesswoman. Linda’s babysitter Belle (Cynthia Ervio – see Bad Times at the El Royale), an equally overworked and underpaid woman, who is forced to work two jobs (a hairdresser by day), at the expense of her own life and the neglect of her young daughter, also plays a surprisingly prominent role and was one of my favorite characters.
Even Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) may loosely be incorporated into this subdivision of society. A white woman abused by her late husband and even by her own mother, she has spent away her money and is forced into a form of prostitution to make ends meet. Although she seems glamorous, her old life has left her destitute and she is in just as precarious a situation as the other widows she finds herself working with. The lives of working-class women are subordinated to the social hierarchy in place, but when Linda, Belle, and Alice are given the opportunity to take back a share that belongs to them, their reservations and differences have to be swept aside.
Finally, there is the criminal underworld, chillingly brought to life with Daniel Kaluuya’s ironically-named Jatemme Manning. Kaluuya is absolutely haunting as a psychopathic hitman, delivering a performance on par with Viola Davis and offering a completely altered persona: he makes Get Out look tame. Their interactions with a local preacher, who knows of his power as a rhetorician and his influence over the souls of his neighborhood, is a prime example of espionage and corruption, welcomed even on a religious level. In fact, the whole of this subsection was electrifyingly evil, and its volatile crew made the whole ride unnerving, unpredictable.
What’s remarkable about this film is that nothing is wasted: writer Gillian Flynn ensures that every small element, every piece of dialogue, every motif fulfills a purpose. It blew me away. I loved that the intersecting plotlines were so well furnished yet used so economically: referring back to a number of shots from the original TV series, the movie is faithful to the original series while updating, subverting, and reinventing stereotypes of gender and class. Plot-wise, it’s phenomenal. Key moments are so smoothly incorporated as to be almost underplayed. If I were to level any criticism at the film as a whole, it would be that not enough was made of these climactic moments – one is so shocking it had the entire room stunned into silence. The message seems to be that life moves on, and we should too.
There has been some criticism of the movie as a feminist vehicle, some commentators suggesting that all the women are concerned about is getting a babysitter for the evening, without really possessing any traits or rounded characterization in their own right. But I disagree. Veronica is a proud, domineering woman with an agenda to resolve past hurts. Linda is a tough-love mother who dotes on her children but has to face the realities of running her own struggling business under the rule of the local political regime. And Alice grows into a stronger, more assertive woman who must take control of her life, walking away from those out to hurt her in a move to reassert her identity. Together they are a living, breathing hell of a force, breaking down the constraints of married life and using their unique backgrounds and personalities to help each other.
Since 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen has established a name for himself as a powerful auteur, and Widows carried high expectations. The early 5-star reviews it met with are justified, and although no movie is perfect I’m having a hard time thinking about what McQueen could have done differently. Indeed, he proves that films aren’t just escapism, but cultural commentary: insight into social, political, and racial issues. Even theatrically, McQueen’s cross-section of contemporary US exposes important realities — Widows couldn’t be more relevant in turbulent political times. Sleek, energetic and fuelled by a dark drive, it’s one of the most robust and important films of the season.