The new film by Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn doesn’t peddle tired tropes about sisterly solidarity – and it’s all the more powerful for it, says Stylist’s digital women’s editor Moya Crockett.
I like watching films. I care about feminism. But something about the way Hollywood has packaged up 21st century feminist ideals in recent years has often left me cold. Studios’ penchant for remaking famous films about men and shoehorning women into starring roles feels unimaginative and patronising to me, as if movie executives have caught wind of the growing demand for female leads and simply thought, ‘That’ll do.’ And while I’ve enjoyed the odd blockbuster that deals with themes of women’s empowerment on a surface level (hello, Wonder Woman!), I’ve been longing to see a big-budget, high-profile movie that tackles ideas of sisterhood and gender in a deeper and more nuanced way.
Widows is that film. The fourth feature by artist, director, producer and writer Steve McQueen (whose previous movie, 12 Years a Slave, won the Best Picture Oscar in 2013) has a central cast of four women who are powerful, brave, exciting, tough and capable. But they are also acutely vulnerable and desperate and frightened, with histories of being downtrodden – by their partners, by their parents, by poverty, by politics. They feel like real, believable women, with all the complexity and contradictions that brings.
In many ways, Widows is a traditional action-packed heist film, featuring a ragtag group of unlikely comrades, a charismatic leader who brings them all together, and the all-important One Last Job. Based on Lynda LaPlante’s 1983 ITV series of the same name, it relocates the action from London to Chicago, where wealthy, well-connected Veronica (Viola Davis) is devastated when her criminal husband Harry (Liam Neeson) is killed on a job.
Veronica always turned a blind eye to Harry’s shady dealings while he was alive, but this becomes impossible after his death. With her own life in danger, she has no choice but to recruit the grieving widows of Harry’s ‘business partners’, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), to carry out the final robbery planned by their late husbands.
Forcing the women of Widows to step into their partners’ aggressively macho shoes is a clever nod to the way Hollywood wedges female characters into male roles. But Ocean’s 8 this ain’t. While Veronica, Linda and Alice prove themselves to be just as competent and cunning as their late husbands, their experience of planning and executing a heist isn’t glamorous or empowering. They don’t relish the chance to engage in violence and criminality. They’re scared, just like you or I would be.
Gillian Flynn co-wrote the screenplay for Widows with McQueen, and the Gone Girl and Sharp Objects author’s fingerprints are all over the spiky, funny dialogue and helter-skelter plot. Less sophisticated screenwriters would have made Veronica, Linda, Alice and Belle (the babysitter the women recruit as their getaway driver, played by Cynthia Erivo) form a kind of ‘badass girl gang’, bonded together by an innate female solidarity. But one of the film’s biggest selling points is that it never falls into that trite trap. It recognises that mutual womanhood is no guarantee of friendship or protection, an inconvenient truth that modern feminist entertainment often ignores.
Because ultimately, the women in Widows are too different for their shared femaleness to create any kind of automatic camaraderie. This is a film that wears the diversity of its cast lightly: Davis has praised it for presenting Veronica and Harry’s marriage as entirely ordinary, despite the fact that Hollywood almost never casts dark-skinned black actresses opposite white leading men. At the same time, the movie never attempts to pretend that four women from such different racial and economic backgrounds would come together seamlessly, simply because they all have two X chromosomes.
Veronica’s wealth and social connections are not enough to buffer her from the subtle micro-aggressions and overt tragedies of American racism, for example, but they do make her gratingly oblivious to Linda, Alice and Belle’s financial worries. Similarly, Alice’s pale skin and model-esque beauty provide her with obvious layers of privilege – but she is a survivor of domestic abuse, something none of the other women seem to have experienced. Neither Alice nor Veronica quite grasp how challenging it is for Linda and Belle, the single mothers of the group, to organise childcare around a heist. And so the women pull together out of practical necessity, rather than some implausible sense of girl power.
The women also display this unromantic pragmatism when exploiting their versions of the sisterhood for their own ends. While trying to get her hands on an essential document, Linda appeals to a haughty Latina receptionist in Spanish, who visibly softens and gives her the answers she needs. Alice, tasked with procuring weapons from a gun show, persuades a middle-aged white woman to buy her three Glocks. She needs them to protect herself from a man, she says. The woman hesitates, but then her young daughter pipes up: “You always say a gun is a girl’s best friend.” Alice leaves with the firearms.
Veronica, Linda, Alice and Belle aren’t the only people on a mission in Widows. There’s also a shady Democratic politician, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who’s campaigning to be the alderman of a South Side precinct; his equally corrupt political rival, Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry); and Manning’s younger brother Jatemme (a genuinely terrifying performance from Daniel Kaluuya). All of these men want power, money and influence as much as the women want to get their job done – and they’ll go to any lengths to get it. Remove the women from the film entirely, and you’d still be left with a decent, gritty, extremely macho political drama.
But it’s the women who make Widows what it is: a long, dark, clever, witty, gut-punch of a film. They’re savage and smart, determined and angry, resilient and resourceful, and grieving for all kinds of reasons. And they’re unstoppable. Don’t miss them.
Widows is in cinemas now.
Images: 20th Century Fox