It’s a dangerous world out there for a film protagonist’s wife. Kidnapped, brutalised, often fridged in favour of the development of their male co-stars, it’s habitually a thankless role that comes with a target on its back. What fun, then, for a heist movie to begin with the three would-be male stars (Liam Neeson, Jon Bernthal and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) getting unceremoniously blown up in the opening minutes, allowing their wives to take centre stage at last.
Making audiences wait a full five years for his next project after 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture, Steve McQueen’s followup choice seemed an odd one. Based on the 1983 ITV series of the same name, Widows follows four women who are compelled to plan their own heist in the aftermath of the aforementioned botched robbery.
It’s tempting to compare Widows to 2018’s other Ladies Do A Heist picture, but the two couldn’t really be further apart. Lacking the glamour and sheen of Ocean’s 8, the heist of Widows is literally a matter of life and death: the men stole $2 million from crime boss and aspiring politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), unwittingly leaving their wives to deal with the fallout. When Manning demands his money back within the month – or else – Veronica (Viola Davis) is forced to turn to her late husband Harry’s shady line of work. Discovering the plans for a robbery worth $5 million in Harry’s notebook, her path seems clear enough. Enlisting her fellow widows, they plot the heist of a lifetime.
In an interview with Variety earlier this year, Davis voiced her frustration with the presentation of female characters on film: “People try to be too nice with women. They keep them pretty. They keep them likable. They cater to male fantasies. They cater to the male gaze.” With McQueen at the helm and script duties shared with Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn, Widows deftly avoids these all too common pitfalls. No stranger to messy, flawed female characters, Flynn helps McQueen craft a collection of real, believable women. Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, and Michelle Rodriguez aren’t hardened criminals or loveable rogues. They aren’t Strong Female Characters™. They’re simply women, recently bereaved and terrified for their lives.
The supporting work is uniformly strong – Daniel Kaluuya in particular delivers an utterly chilling performance as Jatemme, Jamal’s quietly threatening enforcer – but the film belongs to the women. The original’s mainly white cast is updated as McQueen effortlessly assembles a diverse roster largely comprised of women of colour, and spanning a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. As Veronica and her fluffy Westie Olivia are chauffeured around by affable driver Bash, Cynthia Erivo’s Belle, a single mother tirelessly working multiple jobs to support her daughter, is sprinting for the bus to take her to her next gig. Michelle Rodriguez, so often cast as the brash gun-toting Tough Girl, plays gloriously against type as the vulnerable Linda, a woman whose business and self-pride have been decimated thanks to her late husband’s reckless gambling. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), an abused wife and the daughter of Polish immigrants, is compelled by her mother to become an escort when money gets tight after her husband’s death. McQueen and Flynn deftly reflect and balance a wealth of lives and experiences, drawing the women together through their shared tragedy even though they’re worlds apart.
The film’s standout is unsurprisingly Viola Davis. Equal parts steel-spined temerity and aching vulnerability, she’s in her absolute element – and after years of playing supporting roles, here enjoys her first, long-overdue leading role in a major studio movie. And what a role it is – Davis herself has frequently noted that, even in 2018, a dark-skinned black woman leading an action film, sporting her own natural hair, and cast opposite an age-appropriate (and white) love interest is still an incredibly rare sight. Davis’ Veronica seems tightly wound and a little aloof – she’s not here to bond and drink cocktails with the other women – but she never fails to let her character’s vulnerabilities peek through.
Perhaps it’s a little ironic, given its male-centric title and the fact that they’re completing a heist originally planned by their husbands, but it’s refreshing to see a film featuring so many women truly central in their own story. That is to say, not a rebooted formerly all-male property like Ghostbusters or Ocean’s, but a story plotted around them from the beginning. It isn’t really about the theft of millions of dollars, or getting Jamal and co. off their backs. The heist, while breathlessly executed, is almost immaterial. Surrounded by men that beat them, or belittle them, or betray them, it’s about these women reclaiming their sense of worth, power, and autonomy in a world that consistently wants to grind them down.
“The best thing we have going for us is being who we are,” Veronica explains to her uncertain crew. “Because no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.” It may be a man’s world, but with films like this, it’s certainly not going to stay that way.
N.B. As our site is UK based, we work off the selection of films released in cinemas in the UK in 2018.
So to recap, here’s our Top 20 to 10…
=20th – SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE
=20th – LEAVE NO TRACE
19th – HEREDITARY
18th – SHOPLIFTERS
17th – FIRST MAN
16th – SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
15th – AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR
14th – BLACK PANTHER
13th – BLACKKKLANSMAN
12th – COLD WAR
11th – ISLE OF DOGS
10th – WIDOWS
Stay tuned each and every day for the remainder of the year to read more on our Top 10 films of 2018!