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Thick as Thieves

Widows rewrites the heist movie—and the past

Within the first fifteen or twenty minutes of Steve McQueen’s Widows, Viola Davis has a scene which is not only one of the most powerful of this particular performance, but one of the best of this year: in the bathroom of her luxury apartment, former crime-wife and kept woman Ronnie Rawlins paints her handsome and impassive face in preparation for her husband’s funeral. She is, like her home, immaculate; her lipstick—a chalk-textured red the color of real blood rather than movie blood, so that instead of like a femme fatale Ronnie looks merely fatal—is as carefully drawn as a huntsman’s knife. Her earrings, diamonds that are neither so small as to look sweet, nor so large as to look tasteless, reflect the light like shattered glass. Her stillness is a cobra’s stillness, warning of a strike. We do not think that Ronnie—whom the other characters most often call “Veronica” or “Mrs. Rawlins,” although “Ronnie” suits her better, like a Final Girl with a boy’s name, a gangster à la Kray—is capable of cracking. Then suddenly, spectacularly, she cracks. A thing like and yet unlike movie grief, too animal to be contained, spills out.

Ronnie’s husband—who is played by Liam Neeson, and whose failed heist we see intercut in the film’s first few minutes with love scenes between the couple, as ungraceful and saliva-drenched and tender as any in real life—has been suddenly, unceremoniously killed in an explosion, carrying out a robbery that we are tricked into believing has not gone according to plan. (Later, we find out that this is not the first colossal tragedy of Ronnie’s life, and may not be the greatest: her heroic indestructability might read as unbelievable, like something from a superheroine’s origin story in a comic book, if Davis were not in the part.) The howl that rips its way out of her red mouth lasts for maybe fifteen seconds; afterwards, as if nothing had happened, she sweeps one elegant finger underneath each eye, then leaves. There is no other scene set in the present day in which she lets her façade, her invulnerability to human softness or to terror, slip this way again. After the funeral, on discovering that she now owes the millions of dollars that her husband tried to steal to one or more of the film’s very many very bad men, she tracks down the other women widowed by the heist to propose that they team up to complete the job.

“The best thing we have going for us,” she tells the two wives who turn up to meet, moblike, in a steam room—the blonde, bimbo-ish moll Alice and the gruff, exhausted single mother, Linda—“is being who we are. No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.” This may be for the best. Nobody who has actual, literal balls in Widows comes off well: the film believes men to be violent, dumb, self-interested, avaricious, cruel, probably racist if they are Caucasian, and less competent than women. More than one man, having seen the trailer, has remarked to me that it looked as though Widows would be little more than an extremely violent exercise in feminist empowerment—that its one thrill would be the novelty of seeing women wield guns, as if this were more or less the same thing as seeing a dog wear clothes, or walk on two legs. Women might prefer to call this “wish fulfillment.”

Four men die in Rawlins’s heist; only three former wives, for reasons that are at first utterly mysterious, and then infuriating, choose to take part in the redux. None of these women, we assume, have any prior experience in robbery, especially armed and with high stakes. What drives them to it is another, bigger thing the three of them find themselves lacking, i.e. any better option. “If this whole thing goes wrong,” growls Linda, in one of the film’s soapiest lines, “I want my kids to know that I didn’t just sit there and take it. I did something.”

The film believes men to be violent, dumb, self-interested, avaricious, cruel, and probably racist if they are Caucasian.

Linda, as played by Michelle Rodriguez, is the least-characterized and therefore least intriguing of the female leads in Widows (having children is not, I would argue, equal to having a personality, and although we know that her dirtbag husband spent all of their money, and that Linda has accordingly been stripped of her small business, we do not know much else). Elizabeth Debicki’s Alice, simultaneously too tall and not quite grown, appears at first to be a princessy New Jersey naïf, until guns are drawn and she’s revealed to be a perfect shot. Her former husband, who is first shown lovingly caressing the black eye he’s given her over the breakfast table, has been her whole life, her education, since leaving her mother’s care at seventeen or eighteen. With him dead, it seems self-evident that she should find another man to treat her badly in exchange for money; logically, reluctantly, she signs up for the hot millennial girl’s version of the world’s oldest profession. I cannot remember whether the website she visits is SeekingArrangement, or whether it is a copy so close that it might as well be—either way, it feels like actually subversive product placement.

Complicating Widows’s zippy, airtight, femme-heist plot, a racially fraught political campaign underpins every minute of the action. Brian Tyree Henry’s Jamal Manning, a black maybe-former criminal, is running for the job of Alderman in his South Side Chicago precinct. Up against him is a white, entitled man, descended from God knows how many generations of white and entitled Aldermen, played—in a stroke of genius, despite his un-genius U.S. accent—by an especially smarmy Colin Farrell. “I don’t want you to be the first Mulligan,” his father tells him, “to be beaten by a [word that, not being Viggo Mortensen, I know not to repeat here].” The money that Ronnie owes due to her husband’s debt is owed to Jamal Manning; there are further complications, although it would not be fair to spoil them here. What is worth saying is that if Viola Davis is the film’s female MVP, its male revelation is Daniel Kaluuya: as Jamal’s psychotic time-bomb of a brother, Jatemme, he is as certifiably insane, as precise in his madness, as he was by turns indelibly, indefatigably patient and petrified in Get Out. The slight downturn of his eyes, which in Peele’s film gave him an air of gentleness and faint bewilderment, achieves the flipped effect of making him seem borderline-demonic here; a late-in-the-game getaway car scene, soundtracked by Jamal’s mid-debate speechifying, is an actor’s showcase every bit as brief and as electrifying as Davis’s perfect, private, crystalline flash of despair.

It occurred to me, when thinking about Ronnie’s bathroom scene, that this is not McQueen’s first time depicting the repressed, deep-seated trauma of a wealthy but unhappy individual on film: that Shame, whose central character appeared to have developed sex-addiction in the wake of some unspecified, formative trauma—maybe psychic, maybe physical—addressed a similar, if not entirely symmetrical, ache. The sex addict, Brandon, as played in the key of Patrick Bateman by the Irish actor Michael Fassbender, also contained his introspection and his self-injurious anger within the confines of the bathroom. Often, his releases there were masturbatory. So, on some level, was the movie; lacking detailed and elucidating background information, Brandon’s tragedy became the tragedy of a successful, very handsome white man tortured by the need to regularly have sex with one or more women who resemble fashion models. (Brandon’s kookily sad sister, Sissy, is so white that she is played by Carey Mulligan, and is called Sissy. His apartment, in what might be seen as a reflection of his inner turmoil, is white and expensive, but lit so that above all else, it looks blue.) Within Shame’s sleeplessness, its vampire ennui, there is not much that is especially woke. Widows, despite being as entertaining as the best cineplex popcorn thriller, deals with more real and systemic sickness than most art-house fare. What should cause tonal whiplash is, in McQueen’s hands, disquieting, exhilarating: capital-R Real.

Equally exhilarating, and equally capital-R Real, is a short clip from an interview that Viola Davis gave earlier this month, which has lately done the rounds on Twitter: notable for what the actress does not say as much as what she does, it ought to be required viewing for its perfect demonstration of what a fine actor can do with no dialogue at all. “Here I am,” she says, regarding her love scenes with Liam Neeson. “I’m dark, I’m fifty-three, in my natural hair, and I’m with what America would consider to be a hunk. And he’s not my slave owner, I’m not a prostitute, it’s not trying to make any social or political statements, we are simply a couple in love . . . Most”—and Davis pauses, rolling her eyes briefly upwards, gently wiggling her head, in a bleakly funny, universal pantomime for I am trying to think of a pleasant or polite way to explain this, even though I don’t especially, deep-down, feel like being pleasant or polite—“most critics, I will say, most cinephiles, will probably not even acknowledge that as anything novel.” That pause, the not-saying of what it is about most film critics that prevents them from appreciating why this is not just a hot scene, is a thing more generous than we (“most critics, I will say, most cinephiles”) are owed.

What should cause tonal whiplash is, in McQueen’s hands, disquieting, exhilarating.

“I never thought I’d marry a white man,” Ronnie muses at one point in the film, before adding: “Or a criminal.” That “white man” comes first is a joke, and not a joke—or like most jokes, there is a truth within it. Widows is in fact a remake of a series from the 1980s, written by Lynda LaPlante, whose trappings are as British and as of their decade as one might imagine. Raincoats, by and large, are beige; the widows self-identify as “effin’ widows.” It did not seem, at first, like a likely vehicle for McQueen to reboot. Something I did not know about this earlier version of the story, partly because I was not alive when it first aired, and partly because it has not been all that widely publicized, was the dire fate of its British-Barbadian star, Eva Mottley. A great beauty, a great actress, a one-time girlfriend of David Bowie, and a little under thirty years old when the series first aired, Mottley must have at one time seemed primed for stratospheric fame. The criminal behavior of certain presumably white and presumably male parties in the show’s production, it turns out, did not permit it. “The talented Eva Mottley,” a piece in The Guardian reports, “whose charismatic performance as getaway driver Bella O’Reilly had been a highlight of the first series, quit the show, stating that she had been racially and sexually abused by the production crew.”

The second season of Widows aired in 1985; having dropped out only a few months earlier, Mottley started drinking heavily, doing cocaine, self-immolating. She owed the equivalent of $85,000, and pride, an attempt at maintaining her dignity, had cut her off from her best source of money. Within months, aged thirty-one, she was found dead—a suicide by overdose.

In Widows circa 2018, the getaway driver is called, as a tribute to Bella O’Reilly, “Belle.” Played by the petite and shaven-headed Broadway actress Cynthia Erivo, she is unlike the three widows in that she is not in mourning for a man; she is just crackling with energy and willing to look her own mortality square in the face as if the whole thing were a goof. When we first meet her, she is working as a hairdresser and a babysitter. It does not take more than thirty seconds to convince her to sign up for what amounts to a crime of revenge against a rich, corrupt white man in power, and it does not take the movie more than fifteen minutes after this to show us Belle, her muscles rippling, leaping fences like she’s doing parkour, fearless. As if this were not enough: McQueen has dedicated the whole film to Mottley. No critic, no cinephile, could fail to be moved by this gesture, to acknowledge its significance. How naïve to think that adapting Widows would not be, for this director, a fit as tight as a bulletproof vest.