Earlier this year we were given a film that attempted to subvert the typical expectations of the heist genre simply by wonder “what if it was heist movie, but with women?” That movie was Ocean’s 8, and it was…fine. At the time I remember thinking it was surprisingly decent, but as the year has dragged on it’s more or less completely fallen out of my memory. There was some good moments, and some fun chemistry between the various leads, but for the most part it was just a fairly mediocre movie. It didn’t really offer anything special other than the apparent novelty of featuring a cast of women instead of men. But, it did enough to scratch that heist itch, which isn’t really a type of movie we get enough of these days. But, little did we know, we didn’t need to settle with Ocean’s 8, because here at the tail end of the year we’ve been given a movie that features that basic subversion of a women-led heist flick, and does it in a far more satisfying and special way. I mean, when I heard that Steve McQueen, the director of such amazing artistic films as 12 Years a Slave and Shame, was going to be making a female-led heist flick with a screenplay by Gillian Flynn, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. That seemed like a very hard to pin down set of ingredients. I didn’t know how it would all shake out, but I certainly didn’t expect it to be one of the best movies I saw all year. And yet, here we are!
Widows follows the story of three women whose husbands were involved in a gang of robbers, lead by a man named Harry Rawlings. But, at the beginning of the film, the men’s latest heist goes terribly wrong, and they all are killed by the police, leaving the three women, Veronica, Linda, and Alice, widows. The three of them start to find out how to lead their new lives, until they’re brought together by Veronica, Harry’s widow. Because while trying to mind her own business Veronica is approached by two brothers, Jamal and Jatemme Manning, local gangsters who are trying to go semi-legit by having Jamal be elected as a local alderman. And, Harry’s crew’s final heist was to steal a massive amount of money from the Mannings. And they aren’t going to let that go. Jamal and Jatemme begin pressuring Veronica, demanding that she gives them the money her husband stole. Veronica begins spiraling, having no idea what to do, when she’s given a secret notebook that Harry had detailing all of his heists, including one that was all set up to go, but that they didn’t actually do. So, Veronica approaches the other two widows, Linda and Alice, and convinces them that they should work together to pull of this one last heist, giving them enough to push aside the Mannings and have enough money to keep lives going.
The three women then begin planning their heist, which proves to be more difficult than they’d imagined. They get guns and find that the location they’re looking for is a safe-room belonging to Jack Mulligan, the other candidate running against Jamal Manning. Because there’s also a rather fleshed out side-plot in the film about the struggle between Jamal and Jack, both of whom don’t actually care much about actually helping the people in their district, but instead looking to enhance their already acquired power. But, that doesn’t really affect the widows at this point. They’re almost finished planning the heist, and have picked up a driver in the form of Linda’s babysitter Belle, finishing off their last requirements. They’ve finally reached the point where they’re ready to pull off the heist, the night of a debate between Jamal and Jack. They arrive at Mulligans’ house, after staking it out, and get inside to find he safe-room containing several million dollars that Mulligan supposedly embezzled from the city. However, after getting the money, things immediately start to go wrong. Because Mulligan’s elderly father is in the house, unbeknownst to them, and he doesn’t take kindly to these people stealing his ill-gotten money. He shoots Alice, causing Linda to shoot him. They then flee from the building, where they’re attacked by Jatemme, who has been following them every step of the way. He attempts to steal the money from them, but they crash into his car, killing him, and getting the money. The women split up at this point, with Linda taking Alice to the hospital, while Veronica returns to their hideout, only to find Harry waiting for her. He faked his death, and killed the rest of the crew, so that he could help Mulligan win the election and run off with a mistress. But, before Harry can work through his emotions, Veronica shoots and kills him. And, with that, they’ve succeeded. The women divide their money, and start their own lives, on their terms.
Like I said earlier, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going into this movie. When I heard the premise, I kind of assumed it could go in a more comedic direction, or at the very least somewhere in the area that Ocean’s 8 landed, nothing really to say but carried by a very charismatic cast that was just having a lot of fun. But, from the very start of this movie you could tell that this was going to be something different. It starts like a slap to the face, letting us know that this was going to be one of the heaviest heist films we’ve seen in years. The Ocean’s movies have kind of re-contextualized the heist film for a generation as fluffy romps, light on plot and heavy on fun. But, this film wasn’t interested in that mentality. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t fun, this movie was an absolute blast, but it was clearly mining more from the heist movies of the seventies, full of political drama, wanton murder, and people needing to pull of a heist in order to live, not just as a lark. And it was an absolute delight. McQueen proved that he could handle himself perfectly in a more genre film, dealing with the action in a way that you’d never guess he had far more experience in drama. And the cast if absolutely phenomenal. Michelle Rodriguez put in one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from her, Elizabeth Debicki continue to be one of the most fascinating young actresses working right now, and with the one-two punch of this movie and Bad Times at the El Royale I can’t wait to see what Cynthia Erivo is up to next. But, the real start has to be Viola Davis, giving us one of her most badass performances I’ve ever seen, and making me wish that this film was some sort of baton-pass, opening up a world where Viola Davis starts making the sort of absurd action movies that Liam Neeson has made a career out of lately, because I think she could pull it off perfectly.
Because this movie did not shy away from making its female leads just as powerful and badass as we’re to assume their husbands were. I enjoyed Ocean’s 8 for what it was, but after watching this movie I really started to recognize how lacking that movie was. It really had no stakes, and seemed so fixated on the fact that it was a heist movie about women that it twisted everything to make it a “woman heist movie.” I mean, the thing they were trying to steal was jewelry. But this movie was a heist movie, first and foremost. It had very strong, well-realized female characters, but it didn’t really patronize them in the same way that Ocean’s 8 did. This movie didn’t have a vibe of “Can you believe that these ladies are pulling off a heist?” like Ocean’s 8 did. We fully believe that these characters are able to pull this complicated plan off, but doesn’t just make a movie that could have been full of male characters either. It’s an incredibly thing tightrope to walk, but this movie somehow does it in a way that feels effortless. It may be the influence of Gillian Flynn, who has made a career out of making female-led crime stories that feel outside the norms. But, whatever the reason, this film succeeded perfectly, becoming an empowering film that takes no prisoners, just delivering one of the best heist stories I’ve seen in years.
Widows was written by Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen, directed by Steve McQueen, and released by 20th Century Fox, 2018.
Categories: Reel Talk