The words ‘powerful’ and ‘heist movie’ are usually not used in the same sentence. Widows is a film for which both of those words apply, and so it is not your typical heist movie.
Filmmaker Steve McQueen describes his latest film, Widows, as his passion project. A passion project is typically the type of film you are allowed to make after you find big success. It’s the type of film that usually diverges from the mainstream; something either quaint or epic, but always ambitious. McQueen’s last film, 12 Years a Slave, won best picture at the Oscars, which is more than enough success to grant a filmmaker the opportunity to take on whatever type of project they want to do next. Widows, though, is not the type of film you would typically imagine when you think of a passion project. It’s a heist movie, a subgenre we typically associate with a fun summer thriller, rather than a serious dramatic piece that reflects on love, loss, power, and race. It doesn’t stray too far from contemporary filmmaking methods either, but instead focuses its energy on creating a dark, twisted, emotional experience. Widows is thus a passion project in that we can truly feel the passion that went into the making of the film.
The emotional power of Widows comes from a few different places, of which the script is the underlying foundation. Writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) was brought onboard to assist McQueen in writing the script. McQueen’s previous focus on race and emotional struggle work well with Flynn’s ability to carve out an engaging and twisty plot. It is a heist movie elevated above our rather simple expectations of what a heist movie should be, but without losing any of the engaging qualities that heist films exude in the first place. There’s danger and mystery associated with the actual heist and build-up to that heist, but the script is able to convey so much more to the audience. We feel for the characters and how much they have at stake. This isn’t Ocean’s 11, concerned with slight of hand and suave confidence. It’s a serious investigation into personal strength and character, instigated by money and greed bringing out the worst in everyone.
Widows is based on a british television show from the 1980’s, but is set in Chicago during modern times. Henry Rollins is a professional thief who has thrived thanks to his detailed approach and powerful benefactors of his activities. When a job goes wrong, Rollins and his crew are killed, and all of the money they steal goes up in flames. The victim of the robbery was a powerful community leader trying to win a political race against the son of a corrupt career politician. Rollin’s widow is his only surviving heir, and she is threatened to return the stolen money or else face certain death. With only Rollin’s detailed notes to guide her, she decides to band together with the other widows from Rollin’s crew to pull off another heist to get the money she needs.
The focus of much of the film isn’t on the actual heist itself, although that is the primary motivator for the plot. Instead, the film chooses to focus on the struggle of these widows as they try to cope with the situation after the death of their husbands. Foremost is the fact that they don’t know what they are doing when it comes to the actual heist. They are inexperienced, and until the monet of their husband’s deaths, were not required to think about the criminal activities that allowed them to live their former lives. With such a realization, there comes a flood of emotion. They are sad for their loss, but also angry and bitter for what the situation their husbands have left them in. But the film doesn’t wallow in sorrow for these women. Instead, it embraces their struggle. Against all danger and odds, we see them find their strength to do what needs to be done. That is really the heart of the film, empowering the seemingly helpless.
What’s even more impressive about Widows is the way it approaches its theme of empowerment. This isn’t the typical Hollywood-ized idealization of what good people can do when they put their minds to it. This is a film that strives for the struggle of real life. For example, no one in this film is completely innocent. The widows themselves are forced to do disgraceful things out of desperation. They have no other choice, and yet they know it is ultimately their fault they find themselves in this situation. Similarly, the political struggle happening in the subplot features two adversaries of very different backgrounds, but similar corrupt motivation. Even a local priest is only looking out for himself. Widows reflects upon our idealizations of how we would like to live our lives and contrasts them convincingly with the cold realities of the real world.
Because of this, Widows is a very dark film - again contrasting our expectations of a heist movie. But that darkness and depression is ultimately necessary for what the film wants to accomplish, and is what makes it a unique viewing experience. Director Steve McQueen is in full control of the situation and does a tremendous job to craft a film that keeps the audience breathless throughout. In every shot, McQueen is seemingly reminding us of the grim realities. Just when you think things can’t get worse, they do. The audience feels beat up, bruised. McQueen makes our skin crawl. Yet, the excellence of his craft is the fact that we want to keep watching. For every struggle, every uncomfortable reality, there is motivation. When the outside world is overwhelming, we have to look inside for our own motivation.
The most motivating aspect of the film is its cast of leading ladies. These actresses, especially Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki, provide powerful performances around which the rest of the film is anchored. These women really give the film its strength because of everything their characters are fighting against. At times, the films’ darker tendencies can make it a film that challenges the viewer. We’re not used to seeing a heist film that makes us question our moral compass, and this does take away some of the fun. Yet, the acting helps keep it grounded. It makes the struggle relatable and imprints an empowering message despite all that has gone wrong. That, I think, is worth more than your typical heist movie romp (and allows us to pardon its usage of some heist movie cliches). Which means Widows succeeds more as a drama film than an exciting heist film, but it’s nonetheless an intriguing hybrid and the acting is the lynchpin that holds it all together.