Widows (2018) by Steve McQueen
Review by Courtney Anderson
I really, really wanted to be in love with Widows.
I never had any doubt about going to see Widows. I knew from the first time I saw the first trailer that seeing this movie was a priority for me. There was no way I was going to miss a movie about Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo stealing millions of dollars from a rich white man. Plus, I’m a fan of both director and writer Steve McQueen, who is responsible for Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave, and co-writer Gillian Flynn, who is responsible for Gone Girl, and the novel-turned-HBO-series, Sharp Objects.
I’ll also admit to being influenced by my peers. I didn’t get to see it opening night or weekend because I had to do boring things like go to work. So I spent three days trying to dodge spoilers online. I didn’t seen any spoilers, but I did see immense praise surrounding the movie. I saw people calling it the best movie of 2018. So I was super excited when I finally got to go see it.
And I had a lot of fun while watching Widows. If you asked me what I thought immediately after I watched it, I would’ve said something like “HOLY SHIT, IT’S SO GOOD.” But that feeling started to fade the more I thought about the movie.
I realized that the movie left me wanting more, and not necessarily in a good way. To me, watching Widows felt like I was watching the outline of a potentially fantastic script.
I really want to emphasize the “fantastic” part of that sentence because there are things that I really love about this movie. One of things is the acting. Every actor in that cast showed up and worked their asses out.
I was especially amazed by the performances by Davis, Debicki and Daniel Kaluuya, who manage to be standouts in cast full of ridiculously talented people. Full disclosure: I am a Viola Davis stan. I don’t think there is anyone who can express power and vulnerability as beautifully as Viola. Her role as Veronica seemed tailor-made for her. Veronica’s a woman who is struggling with a major loss — the untimely death of her husband (Liam Neeson) — when she gets thrusted into extreme danger — a scary ass crime boss (Brian Tyree Henry) who comes into her life and demands that she pays her husband’s debt. Viola’s performance allows us to see every bit of Veronica’s grief, frustration, fear, desperation and resilience.
Debicki gives such a soft, emotionally resonant performance as Alice, a woman who is learning to take charge of her own life after the death of her abusive husband. Her performance allowed me to empathize with Alice and feel more invested in her journey. And Kaluuya is just scary as fuck as Jatemme, the sociopathic brother of Brian Tyree Henry’s character Jamal Manning. Daniel completely commits to the role, and he never shies away from his character or his heinous crimes.
I also really loved some of the politics of the movie, particularly when it came to discussing racism and political machines. This is where the story of the Mulligans comes in. Jack Mulligan ( Colin Farrell) is running against Jamal Manning for alderman of the ward they live in. Jack’s almost comically racist father, Tom (Robert Duvall), used to be alderman of that same ward, and so did Grandpa Mulligan before him. They want to keep that alderman position in their family, partially because of political power, and also because they’re stealing a shit ton of money from the community they’re in charge of. Jamal Manning wants to take the ward back from the Mulligans because he (correctly) believes that they don’t actually give a shit about the majority-Black ward and have never done anything to actually help them. The Manning vs. Mulligan story ends up being a good vehicle to discuss white politicians who use Black people as political pawns and then actively harms them.
And also . . . like I said, there was no way I was going to miss a movie about a group of women stealing shit. I can admit to being enamored with the idea of these women working through their grief and pain, and completely a super dangerous mission that absolutely no one expects them to be able to complete. What makes Widows different from a lot of heist movies is that these women aren’t pulling off a heist for shits and giggles or just because they want money. They’re pulling this heist because they need to survive. It’s literally life or death, and these women are actively fighting for life. Seeing how this heist changes them as women should’ve been the most thrilling part of the movie.
It should’ve been. It’s not, though. And that’s because of a lack of character development.
That’s actually my problem with Widows. It’s like there are a bunch of missing pages in the script. We don’t actually learn much about these women. We see them completing these tasks, but we don’t really get into their interior lives. The movie asks us to believe that they are different by the end, but we don’t get to see them changing.
With the exception of Veronica, none of these women are developed very well. We have Linda (Michelle Rodriguez, doing career-best work), who is married to one of the men who is killed in the job that sets off the films events. At the beginning, she owns a dress shop that she ends up losing thanks to late husband’s irresponsible “investments.” Linda is frustrated, and she is grieving. After that, we see her agreeing to join Veronica in the heist. We see Linda trying (and failing) to gather information on the schematics Veronica found in her husband’s notebook. We see Linda kiss a guy in a moment of weakness. We see Linda find a new driver for the group after they lose their original driver. And then we see Linda in the heist. We see Linda doing all of these things, but we don’t ever get to go inside of her head. Linda doesn’t ever get a moment to discuss how she’s feeling about all of these things. I thought we were going to get that moment towards the end, after Linda does something pretty drastic during the heist. But, we never do. The movie just moves her from mark to mark, and setting to setting.
The movie uses Alice’s character in a similar way, but they do try to give her some emotional development. Alice is probably the second-best developed of the four women, as she is the one who has to learn to take charge of her life after having dealt with a husband that beats her and a mother who berates her.
Alice ends up getting a job, taking part in the heist and learning to stick up for herself, but the movie somehow manages to be weird about how she does it. I don’t really want to spoil what Alice does for a living, but I’ll say that movie doesn’t seem to be a fan of the line of work Alice enters. She gets a moment with Veronica where she declares that she’s done being mistreated, but there isn’t much leading up to that moment, so it ends up falling flat.
And Belle is just worst developed of them all. Which is sad, because Cynthia Erivo is wonderful in this role, and I wanted a lot more for her. Belle is hairdresser and a babysitter. She’s busy, and her mother watches her daughter for her. Belle’s got hella muscles, she’s a fast runner and she owes a gun. Linda recruits her into being the driver for the heist. They do the heist, and then Belle disappears. That’s it. That’s really all we get from her. We don’t even get much in terms of motivation as to why Belle decides to join the heist. We get one scene between her and a friend of hers that kind of hints at a motivation, but it felt like a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment.
But as frustration as the lack of development of the women is, the one character that really got under my skin was Jatemme. Like I said earlier, Jatemme is scary as fuck. But we never learn how/why he got that way. The movie kind of just asks us to believe that he’s just a bloodthirsty enforcer who does what his brother asks him. You can’t give me a character like Jatemme and then not explore him as much as you can.
There’s also a bunch of plot holes in this movie that I can’t really discuss without spoiling the whole movie. There’s a twist that ends up causing things to make less sense. Neither the Mannings or the Mulligans end up presenting that much of a threat to Veronica and the other women in the grand scheme of things. Overall, I felt like the script needed to be re-written a few times before anything actually got filmed. Or at least read a few more times.
Widows isn’t nearly as powerful as I thought it would be. Writing that low key makes me nervous, because I'm the only person I know who didn't fall head over heels in love with the movie. There’s even a “Widows left me cold” meme going around that makes fun of the whiny dudebros that are nitpicking the movie to death.
Widows definitely didn't leave me “cold.” But still. There's a lot that I wanted that I didn't get.