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The heist film genre is often one defined by wish fulfillment. Films like “Now You See Me,” “Inception,” and “Ocean’s 11” have helped set the standard for the contemporary caper: The overly charismatic, smarter-than-you-could-ever-hope-to-be protagonist anchors an action-heavy thrill ride with a notable set piece, humor, and a persistently adventurous tone. It would appear that one of the main goals for director Steve McQueen with “Widows” is to deconstruct the heist film, from the expected narrative conventions to the degree of social relevance such films can maintain.
The film’s initial premise is sellable and engaging: It sees the widows of four high-level burglars forced to finish off their husbands’ final job after they’re murdered in action. It’s in the development of the titular widows, though, that the movie truly shines. Viola Davis stars as Veronica Rawlins, the widow who comes up with the idea to carry out her husband’s five million dollar heist and becomes the de facto head of the group of women who work to pull it off. As is often the case, Davis delivers a beguiling, nuanced performance: She expertly exhibits the pain of a woman left financially and emotionally compromised by the loss of her husband, and the unimaginable toll of carrying out her late partner’s plans. And this is not to deemphasize the work of the film’s other leading women, including a stoic yet layered performance by Michelle Rodriguez as Linda Perelli, and a realistic look at battered womanhood through Elizabeth Debicki’s Alice Gunner. The first-rate work from the all-star cast enrichens the film from its outset.
“Widows” is not just a heist film — it is a heist film made distinctly for modern day audiences. While this statement might seem obvious, it is still an important distinction to make. “Widows” holds a light up to problems currently facing American citizens: Racial tension, police brutality, and sexism are subtly highlighted and expertly portrayed. McQueen refuses to indulge in the escapist fantasies promoted by previous theatrical heists. The “Ocean”’s franchise might be the most egregious such example, itself delivering an all-female led caper earlier this year. “Ocean’s 8,” starring the likes of Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, and Anne Hathaway, opened last June to a sizable box office (nearly $300 million worldwide) but middling reviews from critics, many critiquing its lack of stakes, incongruous tone, and generally unrealistic narrative. “Widows,” despite coming out the same year, works as a sort of reaction piece: McQueen adds greater depth to his film by presenting it as an affecting character study first, and a heist thriller second.
McQueen’s inventive directorial hand, too, effortlessly elevates the picture, delivering shot after shot that heighten otherwise mundane scenes. One such instance occurs after Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), a sleazy local politician on the campaign trail who is the target of the heist, angrily rants to his secretary after being grilled by a reporter during a stop at a low-income community. As he raves ceaselessly about the reporter and state of the neighborhood while being driven back home, McQueen chooses not to depict the actual conversation. Instead, McQueen takes his shot outside of the car and focuses on the neighborhood in question, presenting a slow, consistent shot of the district and its gradual gentrification as they arrive to Mulligan’s house. This transgressive directorial choice immediately provides two ways of interpreting the scene: the present conversation and the neighborhood as it actually exists.
The film’s variety of twists and turns similarly maintain consistent audience engagement. The screenplay, co-penned by McQueen and “Gone Girl” scribe Gillian Flynn, is relentless in its efforts to subvert audience expectations. The film’s marketing, for example, leads viewers to assume the four widows taking on the job to be Davis, Rodriguez, Debicki, and Cynthia Erivo, the movie’s top-billed actresses. It’s made clear early on that this is the film’s first subversion, with the fourth widow actually being played by Carrie Coon. Erivo’s Belle character is actually a single mother working as the babysitter to Linda’s children, and not a titular widow. So what is the role of the fourth widow? And how does Erivo fit into the broader narrative? You’d have to check out the film to find out.
Steve McQueen’s “Widows” is an exercise in denial in all the best ways. He denies audiences the escapist fantasy they’ve come to expect from heist films. He denies viewers their preconceived notions for his film specifically through various twists. Essentially, he denies the fact that there is a conventional path for heist movies by charting a new one entirely. With strong performances, innovative direction, and unflinching social commentary, “Widows” positions itself as the definitive heist film of 2018.
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