The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Written by Megan Porter.

Photo from the article An intimate close-up shows Veronica (Viola Davis) kissing her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) in bed. The bed sheets create a blank white space around them, and the use of the close-up to obscure the surrounding room from view gives the illusion of a dream-like, unreal space, creating a moment of seemingly perfect marital bliss, ruptured by a harsh cut propelling the audience into night-time and the overwhelming sound of bullets. The binaries set up in this moment - of light/dark, love/violence, even that between the intimate close-up and the more distanced shot of black-masked figures trying to escape from the police - establish the conflicts at play in the film that follows and the contradictions which trouble protagonist Veronica as she crosses from one space to the other. For the rest of the opening five minutes of Widows, McQueen cross-cuts between Veronica and Harry embracing and Harry and his crew fleeing a robbery, ending with an armed gunfight with police which ends their lives abruptly. I think abrupt is the perfect word to describe the tone of Widows: we cut quite suddenly between moments of extreme violence and moments of domesticity, never quite able to settle in either space.

This use of cutting establishes the boundaries between the crime underworld and the domestic space. While many gangster narratives have depicted this blending of spheres (such as The Godfather and The Sopranos), it more typically explores the male protagonist’s relationship to the two worlds as he tries to figure his place within the domestic space. Widows inverts this formula. By presenting a female perspective as Veronica takes the first steps into the criminal world, McQueen gives a fresh viewpoint into a genre in need of revival, much like this year’s Ocean’s 8). However unlike Ocean’s 8, which was a heist movie with a more comic sensibility, Widows ventures more dramatically into the gritty heart of Chicago’s criminal world. It isn’t pretty, but that does not take away from its femininity. Widows allows Veronica to be an antihero in this world as is typically the patriarch of other gangster narratives. It does not try to negotiate the audience’s relationship with the crime by making it more palatable, funny, or bloodless. In fact, the film’s pacing and style leans into often quite shocking bursts of violence.

Widows is also aptly named. It is a heist film which is less about the heist, and more about the women behind the masks. Caught in a moment of personal grief, but also at the precipice of great success, a group of women commit an armed robbery to restore their lives after the death of their husbands. Although the title suggests a film about this grief, it becomes increasingly concerned with their recovery, evolution, and self-determination as the narrative develops.

Much of this emphasis is generated by Davis’ commanding performance as Veronica: a logical-minded woman who takes planning a heist into her own hands after the death of her husband. Her rawness as an actress fleshes out the hyperbolic drama in the heist plot, bringing an element of truth to the narrative and elevating it above the typical rise-and-fall crime narrative. Her performance (and its handling) provide what feels like unregulated exposure to her emotions through scenes spent alone with her, whether that be as she applies make-up for her husband’s funeral before breaking down, or as she stands at her window lost in memory. These moments contribute to the tension of the film - we want to see Veronica succeed, not for the glory of seeing the criminal triumph as in most gangster narratives, but for her own personal sense of achievement. The openness of her grief, her insecurities, and her eventual move towards recovery is experienced alongside Veronica, with the use of close-ups and prolonged screen time in which she is the sole character collapsing the distance between audience and character. In many ways, she is allowed the complexity that a lot of female protagonists are not. Veronica is cruel at times, and harsh with the other widows: in this scenario, our expectation might be for her to take on a maternal role towards them. But the characterisation never devolves into a stereotype or cliché, and as a result Veronica really stands out not as a woman in a gangster movie, but as one of the truly memorable crime film protagonists of recent times.

The film offers us a plethora of female characters on screen, presenting a range of differing perspectives and personalities. No woman in this film is alike or stereotyped - even Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), who is introduced as the abused wife of one of the gangsters, evolves past the character trope in ways I did not anticipate while viewing. She ends up taking control over certain aspects of the heist as well as her own agency and sexuality, and the homoerotic tension between her and Davis’ Veronica cannot be accidental.

In contrast to these women, the men in Widows can at time seem parodical. The open vulgarity of Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) provides an avenue for some of the political commentary threaded through the film regarding the social disparity between Chicago’s districts. Jack Mulligan is every slimy politician plastering his face over billboards in America, using his father’s legacy in the city and promising to fund the poor black community he represents while living in obscene affluence and contracting his own friends and family for city work. It is during the Mulligan asides that McQueen most vividly critiques the racial and social disparities in America’s urban communities. McQueen initially shows this through the focus on the interiors of Mulligan’s home and office. During one scene, he discusses a piece of art hanging on his wall with his senior father (played by Robert Duvall), commenting that it was some sort of bargain at fifty thousand dollars since the artist is about to become acclaimed. The opulence of Mulligan’s lifestyle is starkly contrasted by McQueen’s presentation of the urban landscape in which the constituency Mulligan represents live. Despite his own wealth and privilege as a rich, white male in America, Mulligan is the alderman of a South Side district within Chicago. In his constituency, we see shots of blocks of flats and the dry, dead grass on which Mulligan holds a rally. It is the long take directly following his rally that is my favourite moment of the entire film.

Jack Mulligan leaves a support rally for his election quickly, after being asked about his financial corruption and exploitation of his position by a journalist. It is notable that the area is shown to have a large black community, and when Jack calls people on stage to demonstrate local business projects that his father supposedly funded, all the business owners are black women. Getting into a car with his assistant and leaving, McQueen places the camera on the bonnet of the car and sustains a long take for the duration of the following journey. The camera is initially positioned on the left-hand side of the bonnet, which is framed alongside the Chicago landscape it passes by. Beginning in Mulligan’s constituency, the car travels past domineering landscapes and dilapidated homes. However, as the shot continues, we begin to notice a change in the landscape around the car: the houses get a little bigger; the storefronts become those for luxury brands and hotels. During this take, we hear the off-screen Mulligan talking to his secretary inside the car. He speaks of the journalist, of protecting his own financial history, and of his stress at the situation. Both the diegetic conversation and the camera angle changes when Mulligan begins using racial slurs and stereotyping the constituency he represents: now, the camera pans the right-side of the car, revealing Mulligan’s black driver witnessing this conversation. His expression remains stoic as he drives, despite Mulligan’s words. The presence of the driver, and Mulligan’s use of racial slurs, coincides with the landscape around the car transitioning to the wealthy neighbourhood that Mulligan lives in. Now we see the lush green bushes outside of Mulligan’s home, and the wealth displayed through the large mansions and expensive cars on the street. This is all encompassed in a single take traversing the poor area of the South Side and the conspicuously wealthy neighbourhood Mulligan resides in. The fact that these two locations are within a few minutes’ driving distance of one another shows in actual time the social and economic disparity within Chicago neighbourhoods. The gap between the rich and the poor in the city is large economically but not geographically.

The cinematic landscape of the city and the complexity of McQueen’s protagonist are what really make Widows. It has been criticised, and I think justifiably, for including this political dimension without actually presenting anything but hollow interpretations of the racial tensions within large cities in America. This is especially relevant when considering that Mulligan’s rival in the election is Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a gangster who professes to be reformed whilst simultaneously threatening Veronica for the money and working through Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) to continue organising crimes within the city. Seeking legitimacy through the election, Jamal seems to think of himself as the opposite to Mulligan - a black, working class man from the district (as opposed to Mulligan, a rich white landowner). Jamal presents himself in the election as somebody who has worked this way up from the streets of Chicago towards this goal of being its alderman. However, since he is also a gangster and actively involved in extortion and murder throughout, he is depicted as equally as corrupt as Mulligan. There is no ‘good’ option in this political landscape, and when Mulligan is victorious at the film’s conclusion after the widows’ robbery ends with the murder of his father, it seems a restoration to the ‘norm’ of the city - although this is not an easy equilibrium. The film does not seek to solve this political tension, but instead presents the problems with each candidate in a way that prioritises neither. Nothing changes in Chicago.

Perhaps to look for answers when interpreting the point or meaning of Widows, we should consider its ending. The biggest dramatic revelation of the film comes when Veronica realises that not only has her husband Harry faked his own death, murdering his former crew in order to hide his own escape, but that he has been having an affair with Amanda (Carrie Coon), with whom he has fathered a child. After an earlier scene revealed that Veronica and Harry’s son was murdered by police years earlier, her betrayal at his infidelity and abandonment of their marriage for somebody who has given him what they lost - a child - is hard to watch. Veronica suspects this from an earlier point in the film but chooses at the time not to open that door (literally). Instead, she focuses on her newfound purpose, working with a renewed drive to organise the robbery. After the fast-paced and nail biting robbery scene, she ends up alone at the warehouse where the widows had been planning their operation. Veronica has the money, and stands at an open car boot looking over the cash when somebody walks into the frame behind her and speaks.

It is Harry. His ghost has been haunting her perspectives in the film throughout, via reflections and memories, but now he appears on screen in reality - and he is there for his money. Even though it was Veronica who had been suffering, who had pulled off the robbery and succeeded, Harry appears in time to berate her for being there at all, then attempts to steal in turn from her in order to fund his escape with his new family. During the intense scene that follows, Harry threatens to kill Veronica. There is a sense created of inevitability here, that only one person will be leaving the room. When we hear gun goes off, both the audience and the camera scramble to see who managed to shoot first. The satisfaction of seeing Harry die at Veronica’s hands is palpable in the audience. I applauded out loud, as did a woman down the aisle from me. So often in movies like this we get the trope of ‘fridging’, in which female characters are killed for male pain. Widows presents the opposite. First the male characters are fridged, and even when Harry returns, it is Veronica’s journey which is prioritised as she accepts the new equilibrium of her life, burning down her old one as she walks away.

The ending of Widows is a mid shot of Veronica looking at Alice. They are standing outside of a diner, where Veronica has just given a portion of her money to her old employers, the Chicago Teachers Union. While this action of giving away the money would feel flat in some cases, for Veronica it is cathartic. We get the idea that the personal evolution she experienced was the true reward of the heist. It also funnels some of the money back into the Chicago community, and in that sense she becomes the only person in the film who selflessly gives back to the community. Earlier in the movie, Veronica had stated that the heist crew would never meet again, and that it wasn’t a friendship endeavour. She appears initially to stay true to this, as she notices Alice in the diner and a shot frames Alice’s reflection facing Veronica as she sits but does not approach. However, the last shot of Widows shows Veronica exiting the diner and calling after Alice on the street outside.

A film that can be interpreted to be about a lot of things, I think that Widows can be best enjoyed as a movie about personal evolution, focused on the growing restoration of Veronica. So it seems fitting that the final shot of the film should be of her, just as she begins to smile.

This Alternate Take was published on December 05, 2018.

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