Widows (2018)

Dir. Steve McQueen. Starring Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez

Spoilers, because this is still in theaters! For another fifteen minutes! But spoilers!

Widows begins with a fairly long take of Liam Neeson and Viola Davis kissing. There’s a lot of tongue. It’s 2018, and it’s the first time I’ve seen an interracial kiss onscreen with that much tongue involved. I have said it many times, and I have no doubt that as McQueen continues to make pictures I will be forced to say it many more times: when he plants the camera on something long enough for you to be drawn back into your thoughts about it, he’s encouraging you to get into your thoughts about it. This is not a fault in the filmmaking unless you believe you shouldn’t have any thoughts throughout the movie’s runtime. Widows is a heist movie which doesn’t care very much about the heist, doesn’t think of it is anything more than a frame to tell a political story. This is not Ocean’s 11 or The Sting, where a little character development goes hand-in-hand with smilin’ entertainment. That kiss is there to draw our attention to something unusual, something fundamentally different from what we’re likely to see in this genre.

The small team that Veronica (Davis) puts together is diverse in social class and ethnicity, ranging from Veronica’s union rep to Linda’s (Rodriguez) small business owner for comfort on the upper end. On the other side, Alice’s (Debicki) new life as an escort is both more profitable and degrading than Belle’s (Cynthia Erivo) day job in a salon and side hustle babysitting. Most importantly, the film is set in Chicago, which I’d argue is the most politically loaded city in America. Race (especially as concerns de facto segregation) has center stage there, but Chicago is typically understood to be one of the most violent and corrupt towns in the country as well. In any heist movie, someone must be the target, and Widows makes the target Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the latest heir to the position of alderman of the diversifying 18th Ward. The demographics which supported the Mulligans in Jack’s grandfather’s time no longer favor him. Even the film’s strong twist gets its staying power from the political reading of it. Veronica’s husband Harry (Neeson) is in fact alive and faked his own death during his last job. He’s now living with one of the widows of the men from that job who he has presumably fathered a child with, a fact that Veronica deduces after a home visit. When she has it out with Harry in the end, her criticism of him is pointed in a single direction: it has to do with the “white family” he’s made. It would be less direct but more powerful if the movie didn’t make their son Marcus (Josiah Sheffie) the victim of a police killing—it’s the one sour note in the film, the one that feels most forced and least decorous—and yet it still hits its mark. The original sin that led to the blood and struggle of Widows was, same as it ever was, a racist one. Perhaps Harry decided to cut bait on his “black family” when he saw his black son, who was shot under one of those Obama “Hope” posters, lying in a coffin. (Neeson fights tears in that scene about as well as I’ve ever watched an actor do it; I could watch that old man cry all day.) Or maybe he decided Carrie Coon was a more desirable model than Viola Davis. Or maybe the question of legacy began to creep into his mind, as it certainly has for Jack’s old racist father, Tom (Robert Duvall). What makes Widows incredibly appealing as a social document is its texture, the sense that it is not some “movie of the moment” designed for thinkpieces and glowing statements of relevance, but that it presents remarkable verisimilitude ensconced within the inherent falseness of the movies.

Weirdly enough, one of the most realistic aspects of the movie is one of its most tonally strange and certainly its most charming. Olivia the dog is a little white poof with a friendly face and legs that seem unfairly short. If her walk had a sound effect, it would be something like “doop doop doop.” She cuddles when she’s held and barks brightly and furiously when she smells Harry’s familiar scent. Most importantly, she is basically inseparable from Veronica, who wakes up with the dog next to her in one scene. This is a serious, sometimes even dour movie, and yet there’s nothing even a little dour about Olivia, who is precious and reminiscent of everyone’s pet: beloved, endearing, and essential. Olivia even shows up at the meetings where the team plans their heist, and eventually it ceases to be surprising; she’s about as important to the movie as Brian Tyree Henry or Colin Farrell.

I think we’re all a little inured against menace in the movies anymore, which is a shame—would Harry Powell make a mark on moviegoers today?—but Daniel Kaluuya has it. I think it’s proof that Black Panther would have been a better movie if Kaluuya had played Killmonger and Michael B. Jordan had played W’Kabi. In 1939, Clark Gable appeared onscreen as Rhett Butler, in his first scene staring down Scarlett O’Hara so brashly that she is shaken by it: “He looks as if he knew what I look like without my shimmy.” In 2018, Daniel Kaluuya’s Jatemme Manning gives Jack’s campaign manager, Siobhan (Molly Kunz) a similar look. We see her on one side of the table; we see Jatemme wearing a dead-eyed, all-knowing glare; we see her reset herself, because no one has ever looked at her like that before. It’s marvelous, and wordless, character building. Jatemme knows what Siobhan looks like in someone else’s sex dungeon. (Jatemme, like Jamal, Linda, and Veronica, bears a surprisingly meaningful name. “Jamal” and “Linda” both roughly translate as “beautiful,” where Veronica is derived from “Berenice,” which is itself derived from Nike, the goddess of victory. Jatemme, of course, sounds awfully like “je t’aime,” which ironically or not translates as “I love you.”) He’ll use a similar look later on a pair of soldiers in the Manning organization who cannot adequately explain how Harry got away with Manning money. And in the best bowling alley scene since There Will Be Blood, Kaluuya gets right down on the lane with the paralyzed Bobby (amusingly, TWBB veteran Kevin J. O’Connor) and holds a knife to his throat while he gets information about the book Harry left behind, filled to the brim with plans for his next job. In his limited time on screen, Kaluuya gets to play the notes I hope we’ll see from him more and more often in the coming years. Even in Get Out, he could turn to ice with only slim provocation, and it’s a stance which suits him well. He shifts easily from laconic to intense, seems comfortable with a self-satisfied grin, and is still handsome as ever. I don’t even care about James Bond, and maybe Widows is a weird movie to makes me think he’d be a good fit, but boy he would fit that franchise like a glove.

I encourage you to watch the trailer for Widows again, because after watching the movie I thought it was very odd given the direction the movie actually took. So much of the trailer is about the premise—these husbands died on a heist gone wrong and now their widows have to pay up—and so little of it seems to be about the women. It’s quite the opposite of the film itself, which gives Jon Bernthal and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo little more than abusive husband cameos before tugging them out of it entirely. The story is about what it means to be a single mother, in the cases of Linda and Belle, or what it means to have lost a primary source of income, in the cases of Alice and Veronica. It does not begin as a story about women helping women, since Veronica more or less coerces Linda and Alice into coming along for this ride. But by the end, women against a tide of encroaching male violence, whether that is the Mannings’ threat against Veronica or David’s (Lukas Haas) implicit power over Alice’s wellbeing, find ways to assist each other. Alice (“She’s tall enough to be your mother”) shelters Veronica when she’s in the greatest danger. Linda codeswitches with a Hispanic secretary, asking for help to get some information about vital blueprints. Alice puts on a heavy accent, pretends to be a mail-order bride, and asks a likely American woman with her daughter to help her buy three Glocks (“one for every room”) as self-protection. Perhaps most important to the plot, Linda makes an executive decision to make Belle, who could certainly use the money, the driver over Veronica’s protestations. (There’s a fabulous line where Belle tells Veronica that she needs to watch how she talks to her.) Over and over again, women go out on a limb for other women, never really questioning motives or assuming bad faith. It’s another measure of the movie’s quiet realism that never threatens to spill over into after-school special.

There’s an early sequence in Widows where Davis is seated, putting on her makeup before Harry’s funeral, and we see that she’s in two places at once. It’s a mirror shot, a species of shot that I either don’t care for or find tremendously appealing. At first I didn’t care for this one. And then there’s a cut, and we see Davis in close-up, still more than herself. A thin line of green shows, like a photograph not fully developed, and it gives us some sense of the two minds she’s in: on one hand, trying to maintain composure, and on the other willing to let her emotions loose. (She ultimately gives voice to the latter.) McQueen continues to give us mirrors and reflections in windows, not content to simply show off some technique in the early going and then let it go. We’ll see Veronica in her penthouse window, remembering what it was like when Harry would hold her close to him. At the end of the movie, bookending the film with the makeup mirror, is a scene where Alice and Veronica end up at the same diner on the same day meeting different people. Shooting Davis from the back and Debicki in profile, we see both of them in a pair of mirrors placed on a column. It’s an expression of proximity, of the nearness that Veronica had originally eschewed, and it happens to be part of the continuing representation of the alternate sides of the personalities that these women must access to face their grieving and to face the robbery itself.

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