SPOILER ALERT: This film is now in theaters, and I highly encourage you to view it for yourself. You may want to jump down to the end of this review for a note on content first, but if you want to watch the film without knowing too much about the plot, you’ll want to skip the review until you’ve seen the film.
We often talk about movies being in two different groups. There are the films that are meant purely for entertainment purposes. We refer to these films as being “escapism” or pulling us out of the doldrums of our lives for a few hours. Then there are the films that have something to say about our lives. They don’t pull us out as much as they inform our experience. Sometimes, however, these types of films don’t have the pure entertainment value that you might find in a superhero flick or the latest Fast and Furious movie.
In my mind, the best films find ways to draw from both camps and entertain us while also conveying meaning and nuance. Widows is exactly this type of film, and it is the best 2018 release I’ve seen so far.
This is the latest film from director Steve McQueen, who created one of the finest films I’ve ever seen when he made 12 Years a Slave. On paper, it might seem odd that he would use the blank check afforded him by that Best Picture winner to adapt a British television drama as a genre piece. But that is exactly what he did, and I’m so glad he made that choice.
Widows is a heist film, with many other things mixed in. As with any good film, there are always multiple aspects bubbling beneath the surface. You can never quite pin this film down.
That’s because Widows is also a film about the transfer and balance of power. In some sense, all heist films deal with this notion. Someone has all the power that our band of theives want, and the heist film is our window into their plan to take that power. But this film handles the entire topic in a fresh way by utilizing one key plot element that differs from almost all other heist films.
The team here is made up entirely of women.
Why is this team of women trying to steal millions of dollars? Because their husbands (criminals who we see in the act of stealing in one of the film’s early scenes) have been killed, leaving the wives in danger from their husbands’ large debts.
The female roles in this film are all incredible. Chief among those performances is the monumental leading turn from Viola Davis. When talking about the greatest actresses living today, if Viola Davis is not one of the top two names mentioned then you aren’t doing it right. Every single performance of hers is a powerhouse. I’ll never forget her performance in Doubt, where she managed to outact Meryl Streep in a scene.
Besides Davis, this film has great supporting performances from Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Carrie Coon, and Cynthia Erivo as the other women who are (in various ways) affected by this heist plot. Veronica (Davis) is the leader of the group, and she brings them all together after finding Harry’s (her husband, played by Liam Neeson) journal containing all the components of his next job. The other widows are Linda (Rodriguez), Alice (Debicki), and Amanda (Coon). Amanda does not get involved in the robbery since she has a newborn baby. So the group turns to Belle (Erivo), Linda’s babysitter who is desperate for money.
I thought Debicki stood out especially as Alice. She is a woman who is battered in every sense of the word. In the early stages of the film, we find that her own mother has encouraged her to resort to selling her body to pay off the debts of her deceased husband. (This results in the film’s sole sex scene. That coupled with the film’s violence certainly make it inappropriate for young viewers. You can read more about the film’s content at the bottom of this post.) Her choices as the film goes on may lead some to judge her prematurely, but her character arc is one of being completely passive at the beginning of the film to finding her own self-worth and power by the end of it. Her character is one of the many elements in this film that make it far more than a heist film.
At the same time, there are other narratives going on. Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell play a father/son political team that has controlled the 19th Ward of Chicago for years. The corruption of Chicago politics is well known, and this film has a keen eye into the ways that power and influence are maintained. Farrell plays Jack Mulligan, a man running for alderman who has his future sights possibly set on being mayor someday. Standing in his way is Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) a man who wants to change the balance of power and is not afraid of taking the necessary steps to do so.
Speaking of Chicago, I always love when a film is able to utilize its location in a fresh way. This film highlights Chicago in fantastic ways (including a scene where two characters are on a boat with the city’s unparalleled skyline in the background). Chicago will always be one of my favorite cities, and it serves as the perfect backdrop to this story.
The best supporting performance in the entire film comes from Daniel Kaluuya as the frightening Jatemme Manning, brother to Jamal and a member of Chicago’s seedy underbelly. He is ruthless and cold-blooded as he takes out his vengeance on those around him. Kaluuya made a name for himself with his performance in Get Out, and although this supporting turn may not quite reach those lofty heights, it surely makes Kaluuya one of the top names to watch in Hollywood in the coming years.
Finally, the film certainly has an element of conversation about race. There is the relationship between Veronica and Harry, and the relationship between Jack Mulligan and the predominantly African-American ward he is supposed to represent. His father, Tom (Duvall), ran the ward for years, and we quickly get a picture into his vehemently racist views. Jack brands himself as an empowering voice who supports small business owners in the community. But is that how things work practically for the people who run those businesses? As with all the conversations this film opens up, not everything is black and white. There are nuanced issues at play here, and the film does a fantastic job of letting its characters get their point of view across.
Already in this review, I’ve touched on the ways the film deals with gender, politics, racism, and socioeconomics. Those are some heavy topics for any film, let alone a heist film. But that is what I love most about the story that McQueen weaves here. This is a film that elevates its material. This is an incredibly entertaining film. It moves along at a fast pace and brings all the thrills we’re used to seeing from heist films. But it also conveys meaning and attempts to deal with some of the most difficult topics in our current culture. That is exactly what films should aspire to do.
By the end of the film, I’m not sure I could go so far as to say that we’re supposed to like these characters or overlook the actions they choose to commit. A lot of bad things are done in this film. But I do think this film brings about the notion that, before we can ever attempt to judge any of these characters, we must consider their point of view. Having considered it, we may still find them guilty. But we have to walk in their shoes and try to understand what their life is like before we can do that.
Roger Ebert talked about cinema as the great “empathy machine.” When we’re dealing with criminal acts, the rightful place for empathy may be difficult to discern. But I don’t think this film is asking us to write off the actions of its characters. I think Widows does an incredible job of encouraging us to have empathy for people from all walks of life, and that is a worthy goal. I think the film’s ability to open up such conversations while also being an entertaining genre film make it one of the best films of recent memory.
NOTE ON CONTENT: I mentioned in the review that this film has one major sex scene, and it is graphic. There are also other points in the film where we see pictures of a sexual encounter and pin-up photos of scantily-clad women. The film also has large amounts of graphic violence and profanity. Kaluuya’s character, in particular, is deeply disturbing in his use of violence in multiple scenes. Given the types of characters and the story at play here, those artistic choices are certainly warranted, but you should be aware that the film is quite graphic in its portrayals.