Viola Davis is ferocious in Steve McQueen’s superlative heist thriller

Savina Petkova on Steve McQueen’s ‘Widows’ (2018)

In the foundational Biblical tale, Eve was made from Adam’s rib. In wider ancient mythology, it was a Female force that gave birth to the cosmos. However, in Widows’ inverted cosmology, the death of the husband is the catalyst that makes four ferocious women turn the tables on the presupposed gender imbalance. In its enticing initial sequence, the film juxtaposes hearts to hardships, in captivating edits that jump through ‘before’ and’ after’, teasing out four family portraits connected by tragedy. While the opening cuts between domestic backdrops and POV shots of a car chase, its acceleration and stoppage send us swirling down our emotional rabbit hole until we hit the empathetic bottom: these poor women!

Widows starts off as a deafening shriek of grief, as Veronica (Viola Davis) outpours her bereavement in between her makeup routine on the morning of her late husband Harry’s (Liam Neeson) funeral. While sticking to the guns of its heist genre, the film slowly peels off its surface, until it becomes truly vociferous. Following a melodramatic intro into each of the widows’ lives, after a robbery gone-bad costs the life of four husbands, the film sharpens its truth—searching blade as it positions the thrill element of blackmail—Veronica is to pay the debt of her husband, a sum of money which brings her in between a growing political conflict. And the local elections are drawing closer, so the suspense game is on.

While Steve McQueen does not hesitate to lay bare ‘man vs man’ brutality, men of power are equally repugnant in their reprehensible use of physical violence, guns, or – reserved for the more sophisticated white folk – political manipulation. While Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) embodies traditional self-indulgent nepotism, cross-dressed as a BAME advocate, Jamal Maning (Bryan Tyree Henry), and his ruthless brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) operate on the level of resentful fear-spreading and will-to-power from below. As the film affirms through multiple depictions of vicious acts, (as murders are a must to this genre), we can’t help but wonder if all the men are on their worst behaviour. However, this film strays away from simple treatments of binaries, racial or gender. The moral choices of all the characters (both men and women) is decided with every single action (whether good or bad), and in the mosaic of cause and effect schemata of Widows, every pawn has its decisive role. Steve McQueen puts his men to the test of morality and justice, yet his characters are neither demonised, nor eulogised.

Right in the face of gender-role skepticism, Widows envisions its women as burglars when there is no other way out. By showing the women’s persistence, paired with doubt, their synchronicity, combined with segregation, and their dedication, torn down by their bad odds, the film pays respect to fully-fleshed characters, brought to life by a superb cast. Viola Davis is a ferocious ringleader, pinned down by traumatic sorrow, and this role is a perfect cast after she left us in awe portraying the brilliantly broken Annalise Keating in How To Get Away With Murder (2014- ).

While we see Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) powerless, as she loses her beauty pageant dress store, her strive to overcome newly-faced difficulties is marked as a descent into painful adolescence after a most embarrassing prom. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) is the widow victim of an abuser, and her touching Polish-American character hits all the affecting chords on topics like victim survival, toxic relationships, and bad parenting on behalf of her mother’s (far from comforting) shoulder. Relationships in Widows are as real as life gets, their issues painstakingly vivid and relatable, unmasking a truth we are all afraid to admit – that a genre film can show people as they are, since both violence and drama have their (righteous?) space in both cinema and life.

The important role of choice (or lack of) is what makes Widows a gender-transcending, rather than a gender-bending, film. For this is not a tale of women choosing to replace men, neither a proclamation of who can do it better. Along the road, we have learned from Widows’ fully-fleshed characters that strength lies in weakness, as well as the most painful realisation that, backs-against-the-wall, you must be prepared to kill your darlings.

Widows is released in UK cinemas 6th November 2018.

Savina Petkova

By Savina Petkova

Savina Petkova is a PhD student at King’s College London and a regular contributor for Electric Ghost Magazine. She earned her Masters in Film Studies at University College London and has written for MUBI Notebook, Photogénie, Girls on Tops, Screen Queens, Moving Image Artists Journal, and other publications.