When the director of 12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen) and the writer of Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn) team up to create a female-fronted thriller, it’s unsurprising that it combines all the explosive elements of the heist genre with a searing indictment of the systemic racism and inequality in contemporary American society.
The frenetic violence that pervades the film is immediately established in the opening montage, where a heist goes catastrophically wrong. The entire gang of men involved are killed, leaving their wives alone to fend for themselves.
However, the women have little time to grieve; Veronica (Viola Davis) soon discovers that her husband, the gang’s ringleader, stole $2 million from one of Chicago’s most notorious criminals, and she’s given only one month to return the money before facing violent retribution. The wives band together, forced to become criminals themselves to reclaim the money as they pull off a heist that their late husbands had planned.
These women are no secondary characters whose husbands take centre stage. Instead, while the women’s characters are established in relation to their husbands – from Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) who is struggling to raise her children after her business is repossessed because of her late husband’s debts, to Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) who is a victim of domestic violence and abuse – they are developed through their relationships with each other.
This narrative technique illuminates the diversity and nuanced characterisation of these women, offering an array of perspectives on contemporary American female experiences. It’s a marked rejection of the reductive female stereotypes that have dominated characterisations in American cinema.
Led by the tremendous force of Davis’ performance, McQueen repeatedly foregrounds the toughness of these women. In what could be seen as the film’s mantra, Veronica reminds the others that “we have a lot of work to do; crying isn’t on the list.”
Crucially, this ‘toughness’ is not antithetical to femininity in the film. Instead, Flynn writes characters who bring an array of attributes, skills, and insights to the table. In classic “heist preparation” montages, McQueen highlights the diversity of their skills and the different strengths and resiliences that each woman displays. There is not just one type of power that women in cinema can portray.
As opposed to the recent glitz of the all-female Ocean’s 8, Widows has grit running through its aesthetic and narrative preoccupations. The film offers a more overtly political message to its viewer. The film is inspired by a London-based ITV drama from 1983, but it transports this story to the suburbs of Chicago to offer a poignant indictment of the corruption, racism, deprivation, and brutality that continues to poison contemporary American life. Cutting between scenes of everyday domestic life and scenes of extreme violence at the hands of criminal gangs and the police, McQueen foregrounds the pervasion of this violence.
The exceptional cast portray the horrors and hardships that engulf people’s lives in this Chicago neighbourhood, and by intertwining multiple narrative threads the film offers a poignant, devastating portrait of the lasting effects of violence and corruption on the individual and the community.
Combining intimate, intricate character portraits of these individual women’s lives with spectacular action sequences, Widows is a fantastic thriller that offers an original take on the heist genre, and is most certainly a standout contender in the upcoming Oscar race.