“the best thing we have going for us is being who we are… no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off”
Adapted from Lynda La Plante’s 80’s British TV show of the same name, Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen uproot the setting of London for present-day Chicago, in the midst of a political election. An incredible ensemble piece, showing us the aftermath after the protagonist’s husband dying in a heist gone wrong; and must pick up the next job after them in order to survive. Steve McQueen returns along with familiar faces and names such as Cinematographer Sean Bobbit and familiar financier/distributor Film4.
Thematically ‘Widows’ is more complex than it appears. Politics and poverty give the world texture, as we see femininity redefined with the outcome enforcing a sense of empowerment that doesn’t feel sentimental, forced or even undervalued. I want to explore this in this piece, in regards to the characters, but specifically ‘Alice’ and her characterisation and the way she manifests herself physically and emotionally in the film. I also want to examine the way in which McQueen and Flynn hone female empowerment for the betterment of the heist genre and as well as the potential impact this film can have for the future of the industry in regards to casting.
An aura is created around these women, one which feels natural and not just ticks on a diversity checklist. The film is cast with the characters in mind, which leads to an incredible variation of talent on show in this ensemble piece, which gives such authority to what the characters do and say. The choices they make are genuine, their voices clear and their vulnerability apparent throughout the whole film, which leads to some incredible high tensions moments throughout the film. One of the biggest strengths of this film is the reaction to the situation they’ve been put in, their total lack of knowledge, complete lack of physicality which doesn’t lend itself to a job like this. Yet in spite of all of this, they use their preservation instinct to survive.
One of the most notable character transformations comes from Elizabeth Debecki’s Alice, a woman who experiences abuse from her late husband and her mother (Kermode, 2018). Her physicality stands tall above everyone else, yet she’s been conditioned to bend to the will of other dominant presences. Utilising all she has to survive, such as her sexuality becoming an escort to help support herself, even her Polish heritage to help procure firearms for the rest of the widows.
“But Alice is from the beginning, a survivor. All of these women are. But there is a strain in her that is sort of unbreakable. She is not a broken person and she doesn’t see herself as a victim. None of these women become victims of their circumstances.”
(Alex Jung. E, 2018)
– Elizabeth Debecki speaking to Vulture
As the film goes by, her body language changes, her choices become for the betterment of her as observed by Brian Tallerico in his review for rogerebert.com (Tallerico, 2018). Her empowerment comes from her distinct lack of knowledge and ability of how to act within this world of crime, yet she does in spite of the fact that during her lifetime she’s never been truly independent. This becomes in of itself a declaration of independence and removal of the shackles she’s experienced all her life. What makes Alice such an intriguing character is seeing someone who has no business being in such a situation like this using every facet of her being to survive this situation.
No one can see these women, not in this world. Yet they exist within a situation, which is unforgiving, but this shows one of the main pillars; the unification of women, the identifiable aspects of these women, their fears, lives and the very things which keep them going in life. These women experience, fear, love, and consequence like anyone else. But the manner in which they experience everything doesn’t seem forced or lacking any genuine meaning behind it, which is the most admirable qualities this film possesses as a whole. We as an audience want to care about characters who we believe in.
The Heist Film
An interesting collection of tropes, which Mark Kermode alludes to in his review of ‘Widows’ for ‘The Guardian’. The heist film follows certain beats The suave protagonist, the equally cool crew, who follow him into an impossible heist situation (Kermode, 2018). They always manage to pull it off against all odds and they retire living a nice life, almost entirely without consequence or jeopardy. (Tallerico, 2018). The difference between this and Widows is the aspect of choice, which throughout the whole film is stripped from the protagonists.
The crew in the typical heist films are professionals, they understand the risks and for the most part, they are in the situation through choice. In ‘Widows’ they’re thrust into the situation, through the mistakes that their husbands have made. The jeopardy is apparent as the constant feeling of anxiety and dread mount in odds of the characters. The point of this job isn’t to live well, it’s to survive, it’s a choice whether to exist or not. The film so successfully grounds us in the lives of the characters and the environment in which they exist in that we fully understand the jeopardy behind every decision, the difference between it coming off or not.
The impact of this film on the industry as a whole is yet to be seen in the wider context of Hollywood, especially so early on, but at its core, it’s a film about four women, a major studio film about four women. It bodes well for future films, which want to show female characters front and center. In the trend of McQueen’s previous film 12 Years A Slave showed films around black history and the African American experience can make be commercially viable (BlackTreeTV, 2019) something which McQueen alluded to in an interview with BlackTreeTV. This could have led to films like ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Get Out’ being picked up due to the commercial viability of these stories. If the former is true, then perhaps ‘Widows’ can be the example for female-led films, especially in genres to which we are not accustomed to seeing such a prominent female presence.
Kermode, M. (2018). Widows review – Steve McQueen delivers an outstanding heist thriller. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/nov/04/widows-review-steve-mcqueen-viola-davis-heist-thriller-lynda-la-plante. Last accessed 05/01/2020.
Tallerico, B. (2018). Widows movie review & movie summary. Available: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/widows-2018. Last accessed 05/01/2020.
Alex Jung. E. (2018). Elizabeth Debicki Finally Got to Play ‘Ordinary’ in Widows. Available: https://www.vulture.com/2018/11/elizabeth-debicki-on-widows.html. Last accessed 05/01/2020.
Steve McQueen talks WIDOWS at 2018 Toronto Film Festival (Sep 8, 2018) YouTube video, BlackTree TV [Online]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwx_i9duVtE [05/01/2020]
12 Years A Slave. (2014) [DVD] Directed by Steve McQueen. United Kingdom: Film4 [Viewed 15/12/2019]. Available on DVD.
Get Out. (2017) [Online] Directed by Jordan Peele. United States: Universal [Viewed 02/12/2019]. Available on DVD.
Moonlight. (2016) [Online] Directed by Barry Jenkins. United States: A24 [Viewed 15/12/2019]. Available on DVD.
Ocean’s. (2001-2007) [Online] Directed by Steven Soderbergh. United States: Warner Bros. [Viewed 01/12/2019]. Available on DVD.
Widows. (2018) [Online] Directed by Steve McQueen. United Kingdom: Film4 [Viewed 10/12/2019]. Available on DVD.