Another brilliant drama undermined by the ill-considered use of violence?

Writer/director Steve McQueen has made one brilliant film after another (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave), all of them dark dramas about people in pain and people inflicting pain on others. Widows, advertised as a heist thriller, is actually another slow-moving dark drama focusing on people in pain (and people inflicting pain). The film also explores a variety of vital and topical themes with obvious good intentions. But while Widows enjoys near universal critical acclaim, I am uncertain about whether such good intentions can succeed with such cold and violent characters, a number of whom are meant to be sympathetic.

Widows begins with the theft of two million dollars from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who is running against Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) in an election for alderman in Chicago’s South Side (a position long held by the Mulligan family). The getaway doesn’t go as planned and the four armed robbers are killed by police, with the getaway vehicle exploding with all the money. The film’s protagonist, Veronica Rawlings (played by Viola Davis, one of the best actors of our time), is the widow of the thieves’ leader (Harry Rawlings, played by Liam Neeson – there are lots of flashbacks). Manning threatens to kill Veronica unless she finds a way to replace his two million dollars within the next month.

Despite living in a wealthy home, Veronica has no money and is at a loss as to how to get her hands on such a sum. But she finds a notebook in Harry’s safe-deposit box that contains all his heist notes (past and future). A friend of Harry’s advises Veronica to trade the book to Manning for the two million dollars. Instead, she talks two of the other widows into attempting to make the next heist themselves. If successful, Veronica will be able to pay Manning back and have enough left over to give each of the widows a much-needed million dollars to live on after the death of their spouses (and to take care of their children).

The two other widows are Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki). They will eventually be joined by Linda’s babysitter, Belle (Cynthia Erivo). The third widow, who decides not to participate in the heist, is Amanda (Carrie Coon), who has her own story.

With the help of well-developed and well-written characters, and some extraordinary acting, Widows makes some very astute observations about sexism and gender in an original way.

In the film’s subplot, Mulligan, whose numbers in the polls are fading fast, tries to figure out how to beat Manning. He blames his father, Tom (Robert Duvall), for his sinking numbers and wants to try something different, but his father won’t have it. This subplot is one of the problems (if not exactly flaws) in McQueen’s screenplay (which was co-written by Gillian Flynn), because despite the fascinating characters and great performances, it doesn’t get enough screen time to go beyond superficial arguments, flashes of Chicago and the violent schemes of Manning’s brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya). As a result, the plight of Chicago’s citizens, who are at the mercy of politicians who are only in it for money and power, is never explored. Instead, McQueen gives us only brief glimpses into problems like racism, classism and the violence of police against young African American men.

Where the screenplay’s good intentions have depth are in its depiction of sexism, as women are repeatedly treated (by the men) as second-class citizens, people to be taken care of. One of the reasons given for why the widows decide to carry out this desperate heist is their desire for self-respect, to stop being pushed around by men. It doesn’t hurt that no one would suspect that women are even capable of carrying out such a plan.

With the help of well-developed and well-written characters, and some extraordinary acting (especially by the women; Davis is terrific), Widows makes some very astute observations about sexism and gender in an original way, but it is precisely here where, in my opinion, the film’s biggest problem lies. To carry out their heist, for example, the widows purchase guns and learn how to use them without the slightest qualms. At one point in the film, Mulligan tells Veronica that “you reap what you sow,” to which Veronica replies: “I sure hope so,” by which she means she hopes Mulligan will suffer the consequences of his actions. But none of the widows, whose husbands paid the ultimate price for their violent criminal lives, seem to reflect seriously on the potential consequences of their own use of violence. Linda does mention that she is the only one of the four who has spent time in prison and thus knows what they are truly facing, but no serious discussion follows, which is especially unsettling knowing that two of the widows have young children.

So while there is a lot to admire in the film’s depiction of strong women, I must ask a question I have asked of other recent films featuring strong women: Do women need to show they are just as capable of using violence as men in order to be taken seriously as equals? I surely hope not.

I am not prepared to state categorically that Widows has failed in its good intentions. The characters and acting are so good, the screenplay so full of subtle and sharp dialogue and the score and cinematography so strong that, when combined with the fact that the film has so much for viewers to discuss, I must conclude that Widows is very much worth watching (for those who are open to dark violent films, though it must be noted that, despite what we see in the trailers, the violence is infrequent, seldom graphic and never entertaining). If only McQueen had focused strictly on the widows and their grief (and their heist) and explored the decision to use violence more creatively, instead of spending as much time on politics and Jatemme’s violence (which was no doubt part of Lynda La Plante’s novel, on which the screenplay was based), Widows might have been the masterpiece many critics believe it to be.

Widows is rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual content/nudity.


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