Artist-turned-director Steve McQueen has a certain flair for the insightful. His previous works, Hunger (2008), Shame (2011) and 12 Years a Slave (2013) have focused upon singular characters, fixating on the intimate details of an individual’s life and creating a display which feels almost private. With Widows (2018), however, McQueen branches out from this intimate filmmaking, to establish a world which feels colossal in its realism, and painfully current in its observations of today’s racial, sexual and class politics.
The widows in question – Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) – represent women from across various different social circles and spectrums. Veronica is a teacher’s union delegate and lives a lavish lifestyle, but remains acutely aware of the racism entrenched within her surroundings, especially as a black woman married to a white man. Considerably worse off financially is Linda, who juggles a business and two young children. With lived knowledge of the prison system, Linda is naturally more cautious than her contemporaries, illuminating a class difference that is essential to McQueen’s depiction of an intersectional environment. Alice, on the other hand, works as a high-end escort and experiences the daily struggles of male egocentrism. After suffering abuse at the hands of her husband, her journey is one of rediscovering her own independence – and it just so happens that a $5 million heist is the perfect way to pull this off.
For these widows are not just widows, they are widows in extreme trouble. After the death of their criminal husbands, Veronica is threatened by crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), whose money her late partner stole. With one month to raise $2 million, she rounds up Linda and Alice and explains the situation: they must pull off a heist, or face the wrath of Manning and his terrifying brother-turned-henchman Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya, in a villainous performance so good you’ll hold your breath every time he’s on screen). Easy, right? Not so much. The widows, different as they are, clash quickly, with Veronica proving far too bossy and straight-edged for the much more easygoing Linda and Alice. This works to the film’s success, as through their arguments and their mistakes, these women are allowed to be unlikable, messy, and even ugly. In Widows, McQueen crafts three women who are fully-rounded characters, with all the shit that comes with it.
Unfortunately, with such a huge cast – additionally featuring Colin Farrell as a politician I simply didn’t care about – we never quite get enough time with these women. A systematic approach to the plot, most likely influenced by the film’s place as a literary adaptation, means that Widows sometimes feels overlong and fragmented, never giving enough attention to any of the cast in its attempts to create such a huge and realistic world. Scenes are often too short and fail to give wonderful, impactful dialogue the time it needs to settle. Though this fast pacing does keep the film engaging, and plot twists are executed perfectly, the true stars here are the widows themselves, with the surrounding characters (Kaluuya’s Jatemme excluded) simply window-dressing.
It is, however, refreshing to be able to state that the film’s female characters have far more depth than their male counterparts, and that this depth is channelled through to the bonds between them. Alice, whose difficult relationship with her own mother hangs over her constantly, forms an almost parental relationship with the older, and stricter, Veronica. Impatient at first, we witness Veronica soften through the film, particularly after Alice proves herself to be much cleverer than she initially appears. One scene presents their changing relationship perfectly; when Alice goes to answer a knock at her door, she presumes it to be her mother. “It’s Veronica,” comes the steely reply – a thousand miles from the gentle nature of what one would associate a mother with. A few minutes later, after a vicious argument, Alice is crying into Veronica’s arms, and the full scope of emotions contained within such a complex relationship are laid out in a single scene; this is where Widows is at its most wonderful.
Though never overemotional, the widows do reach a mutual respect, and when they carry out their heist, they are equal in the eyes of the audience. Bodies encased in practical black, masks covering their faces, they finally work as one unit, succeeding through their status as women, rather than despite it – as Veronica states powerfully, nobody expects them to have the balls to pull this off. For those few minutes, for which they have worked for a month, their differences evaporate as they chase the same dream – freedom and independence in a patriarchal world.