The title of Steve McQueen’s latest film is more telling than it may seem at first: these women are widows, but before that they were wives. First and foremost they were seen by others, or saw themselves, as the plus ones to their husbands: the competent leader, the strong man, the guy who brings home the money. And this, the notion that their lives are tied to their husbands even after the latter have lost their lives, persists. First and foremost Veronica (Viola Davis), whose husband Harry (Liam Neeson) led a robbery gone fatally wrong for all the men involved, finds out that she is being held accountable for the millions of dollars Harry stole, even if she had no part in his criminal career – and she in turn seeks out Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), the other bereaved widows whose husbands died in the van shot to pieces by a SWAT team, to twist their arms into helping her. The only way they can free themselves from their dead husbands is to take on the roles of their husbands and to do that proverbial last job.
The premise of Widows may sound like the starting point for a predictable gender-swapped heist piece, complete with empowerment by rote. Instead, McQueen’s take on the genre is anything but rote and the empowerment it finds for its protagonists is nuanced and ambivalent. This is most evident in the title characters and their bristly relationships, which never turn the film into a feel-good “girls are doing it for themselves” entertainment. Veronica is no charming double-X chromosome Danny (or indeed a Debbie) Ocean: she is a woman in her 50s who knew loss even before that one robbery gone wrong. We see her as a sensual, passionate woman in flashbacks to her marriage, as the pain-racked mother of a young man who is gunned down by the police for committing the crime of reaching for his papers, and as someone who in her desperation isn’t above blackmailing two other bereaved women in order to save herself. If the archetypical heist movie is a quirky, playful jazz riff, Veronica is closer to the melancholy of Miles Davis’ “Elevator to the Gallows” soundtrack. Neither she nor Linda are quite aware of how much they were and still are shackled to their spouses until their deaths.
At a first glance, it is only Alice who finds herself freed by the death of her abusive husband (Jon Bernthal); even though her mother makes it very clear to her that her best avenue other than abject poverty is becoming an escort, which Alice ends up giving a try, she discovers new sides to herself as she takes on an active role in preparing for the heist laid out in the notebook that Harry has left behind for Veronica. Alice is the one who most visibly blossoms as she discovers not just that she has a knack for this kind of thing but even enjoys it – though Veronica and Linda too find that even though neither of them can choose their actions freely, they do find a sense of agency even in a situation that has been imposed on them by others: by their husbands, by the men who’d been ripped off by Harry and his gang, and by the crooked politician who’s orchestrated the original robbery.
While McQueen is a very different director from Quentin Tarantino, while watching Widows I found myself thinking of Jackie Brown. Both films centre on a middle-aged African American woman used by one bunch of ruthless, entitled men as a pawn against another bunch of such men, and in outpacing their plans and machinations finding a strange, unexpected sense of freedom. As with Jackie Brown, many of the main players in Widows are men, but it’s entirely the show of the women at the epicentre. Davis’ acting is very different from Pam Greer’s in Jackie Brown, as is the way the camera frames these women – but they are sisters in spirit, women who prove stronger, braver and more capable than both the men who desire them and those that try to use them. Veronica, Linda and Alice may start the film as widows – but by its end, neither of them will see herself as a plus one ever again.