Written by Gillian Flynn & Steve McQueen
Directed by Steve McQueen
Veronica Rawlings is alone in the world. Her husband Harry, a famous thief in the Chicago area, was killed in a heist gone wrong. Harry always knew which authorities to butter up and how to stay ahead of the law, so Veronica has become accustomed to a very luxurious lifestyle. The men Harry stole from turn up a couple of weeks after the funeral with demands for the money. They give her two weeks to come up with it, or they will return to make her life the repayment. Veronica reaches out to the widows of the men that were killed alongside Harry and shares his notebook with them, a leather-bound journal detailing a series of future robberies he was planning. Veronica plans to pull off one of these crimes to pay back the men looming over her and escape to start a new life.
In the hands of a more studio, executive-pleasing director Widows would just a be a slightly okay crime movie. However, when you combine the writing prowess of Gillian Flynn and the directorial touch of Steve McQueen you end up with a genre film that is elevated to exist in a middle ground adjacent to more arty fare. McQueen chooses to shut typically mundane conversation scenes with impressive and creative cinematography. One standout was a conversation held by Colin Ferrell’s sleazy politician Jack Mulligan and his assistant. Instead of medium shots or close-ups inside the car, the camera remains mounted on the hood of the vehicle. The conversation happens off screen as we drive from the projects in the ward to the edges which have become gentrified. While a discussion about the exploitation of the working class and poor black community is carried on, we see the very nature of the white takeover of their neighborhood before our eyes.
McQueen doesn’t shy from the role race plays in Widows. Veronica (Viola Davis) is a black woman who remarks to her husband before his death that she never imagined she would marry a white man or a criminal. Mulligan is worried about the electoral chances of his opponent Jamal Manning who is more closely in touch with the ward’s black community. Mulligan’s retired politician father Tom unleashes vulgar racial epithets when talking about the people he was supposedly serving for decades. While this is the never the centerpiece of the plot when you’re telling a story about Chicago politics and crime it is inevitable that issues of race will come to the table. Veronica’s life is touched by the very concerns of Black Lives Matter as they seek to bring more light to the brutalization of black youths by the police.
The crux of Widows is the story of a broken woman attempting to realize the life for herself that she has never had a chance to create. With Harry’s death, Veronica realizes her late husband owned everything she has. We also see Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) having her clothing store seized by bookies that her dead husband owed an untold fortune to. Alice, first glimpsed fawning over her soon to be dead husband while sporting a black eye he gave her, is later encouraged to become an escort via a “sugar daddy” website. Her mother implores Alice, implying there is no other way a woman like her could seek to attain status in this world. Men have effectively broken these women in the end, but the film still keeps things real, never becoming a tirade against masculinity.
Veronica loves Harry to a depth few people around her can understand, yet he is responsible for the greatest pains she has experienced in her life. There is no justification of his wrong-doings, rather an empathy for the complicated dysfunctions of love or perceived love women like Veronica go through. I cannot doubt how she felt even as I question Harry’s motives. The other widows’ relationships are never explored in profound depth, but through implication, we can understand they too lived through difficult and hard to justify marriages.
One of McQueen and Flynn’s best choices is in how they choose to use and not use their villains. Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) is arguably the movie’s chief antagonist, aided by his sociopathic brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya). There is a chance that Jamal is a black man trying to help his community, but it becomes apparent, very quickly he is just envious of the game the Mulligans have been running in his neighborhood and wants in on the action. When he pays Veronica a visit he doesn’t seek her help as a leader in the teacher’s union, he resents that she is living a privileged and sheltered life, feigning ignorance of what her dead husband was up to. He only shares one scene with the protagonist, but it is more than enough to set the stakes of the film. From then on we mostly see Jatemme making his way around to Chicago to brutalize and kill those who stand in the way of his brother and goals. Kaluuya plays Jatemme with silence so that his words are utilitarian. When he speaks, he threatens you, and then he hurts you. There’s no playfulness to his speech, and that makes him all the more chilling.
Widows is being considered McQueen most audience-friendly film to date, but I’d argue that he works diligently to acknowledge the genre cliches and rework them so that they remain but still manage to surprise. The heist part of Widows is not the majority of the picture which was the right movie to make. McQueen and Flynn focus on character development, and when the action happens, it is very swift and conclusive. No need to drag scenes on unnecessarily. This leaves us with a film that values its emotional impact on the viewer first.