While Steve McQueen’s Widows, co-written with Gillian Flynn, is certainly a heist movie, it has a complicated relationship to its genre. This probably shouldn’t be a surprise, considering the past work of its director — Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave have about as much in common with Ocean’s 11 as they do Looney Tunes — but by the time all the robbing is done, it does leave an odd impression, one surprisingly similar to that of his earlier films despite the choice of genre.
Rather than indulge in the traditional tropes and set pieces offered by the heist narrative, McQueen chooses to downplay these elements, if not avoid them altogether. The squad’s recruitment happens in an instant; its training is nonexistent, its chemistry fraught; their preparation mostly involves Michelle Rodriguez running back and forth from a van with a bag of dirt on her back; and the heist itself is almost defiantly anti-climactic, a short in-and-out of a residential home that involves little more than a code being punched into a keypad and an abbreviated, accidental shootout.
Whatever McQueen’s reasons for choosing this approach — heightening the realism, keeping the focus on the characters, thumbing his nose at expectations — it creates a stranger dynamic than what we’re typically left with at the end of this kind of movie. Picture the recent Ocean’s 8, in which the cast lounges around the safe house, chatting and hamming it up as they savor a successful job; then compare that to a parallel scene in Widows, in which Veronica (Viola Davis) returns to their HQ post-job only to find her supposed-to-be-dead husband, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), waiting there to steal her loot and shoot her in the head. It’s a nasty moment, played with fury by both actors, and it consummates the thematic arc of the film to that point: tragedy can bring people together, but it can also tear them apart.
But even that encounter, thrilling as it should be, is sapped of its suspense by McQueen, who has telegraphed the continuing earthly existence of Harry so clearly that you spend the last act of the film waiting for him to show up in the same way that you’d wait for a bus. It seems likely that McQueen isn’t interested in suspense so much as he is the burdens carried by Veronica: first, that of having to clean up after her husband’s mistakes; and then second, having to live with the knowledge that he betrayed her, knowing full well that she would be stuck with the bill he ran up in the process of robbing the Mannings. Money is heavy, as Michelle Rodriguez discovers when she puts on that bag of dirt, and it’s only in the context of this dead weight that we see the full extent of Veronica’s strength.
These questions are resolved with a bullet, and leaving Widows, the story appears to have come to a tidy ending. Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) has triumphed in the alderman’s election, ironically thanks, in part, to the widows’ murder of his dad, which brought out a sympathy vote that pushed him past Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Jamal’s enforcer (and brother) Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) is dead; Harry is dead, for real this time, having been punished for the greed of wanting Jack Mulligan’s money when he could’ve just run off with Amanda (Carrie Coon) and his new baby with what he earned from robbing the Mannings.
Meanwhile, each of the main female protagonists is given a triumphant conclusion: Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) gets her store back, Belle (Cynthia Erivo) helps her boss buy out her hair salon, Veronica donates to a school library in her deceased son’s name, and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) has a nice coat. The few questions that remain — chief among them: doesn’t Jamal Manning still want his money, and probably revenge for his brother? — don’t seem to be troubling anyone.
But the cumulative effect of McQueen’s toying with genre comes in retrospect. The film is called Widows, and for much of it, it plays along with the conceit suggested by that name: a bunch of widows are going to pull off the heist that their husbands died before doing. It’s a simple, concise, and emotionally straightforward idea, a metaphorical means of overcoming their grief that still sounds like a studio movie tailor-made for the zeitgeist.
However, it’s in that name, and that concept of the “widow,” where we might find McQueen’s true intentions. Generally, the notion of the widow is used to suggest a grieving, bereft woman mourning her lost husband, a woman left behind and mired in sadness. While that is true of these characters, there’s another side to each when viewed from the vantage point of the ending: Alice’s husband beat her; Linda’s husband gambled away her store; Veronica’s husband was having an affair behind her back; and Amanda was cheating on her husband with Harry, who set him up to die. Technically, these women are grieving widows, but at the same time, they represent the many ways in which men and male society can victimize and exploit women — and, in one case, the way women can hurt men.
Meanwhile, we realize, walking out of the theater, another factor in this dynamic: Veronica wasn’t even a widow. Her widowhood was a guise, an escape route for her husband: it was a burden thrust upon her falsely, trapping her beneath the obligation of paying back the Mannings. When Veronica does become a widow, she makes herself one, and the word takes on wildly different implications within the context of McQueen’s film: now, her widowhood is real; she came into it through her own actions, rather than those of a man; and instead of being a cage, it represents liberation and empowerment, albeit at a cost.
From this perspective, Widows doesn’t look like a heist film: it seems like more of a prison break, the story of four women escaping the shackles put upon them by their husbands. In that sense, it does end up having something in common with McQueen’s previous films, despite early appearances to the contrary: his protagonists may face different circumstances — from a British jail to sex addiction to slavery — but they all just want to be free.