The heist film is a tried and true formula for genre moviemaking. There’s no denying the simple pleasures of watching a team of “who’s who” stars work together to either steal their way to wealth and luxury…or perhaps get punished for it. Steve McQueen’s sprawling Chicago-set crime saga, Widows, follows in the footsteps of the classic heist films, the Heats and Dog Day Afternoons of the world, and forges its path with a mixture of social commentary and an examination of our obsessions with tales of teamwork and thievery.
After the botched heist left four very different women with dead husbands, mountains of unpaid debts and dangerous people at their door, 3 of the eponymous Widows along with the help of essentially a hired-gun set out to finish the job their men failed as a means of survival and desperation. And with that summary out of the way let’ talk about what Widows is really about: theft.
At the core of Widows is a story about cycles of theft and greed. Throughout the movie the question of “How are you going to make money?” is raised. And no one ever seems to have a good answer. It doesn’t matter whether the character being asked is the heir to a legitimate political dynasty, his incumbent opponent a community organizer, let alone any of the four widows. In the film’s painstakingly researched vision of modern Chicago, a single crime has ripple effects across all levels of the community. That old saying of “follow the money” reveals a complex and often hypocritical system of tit-for-tat “favors” and a cycle of give and take between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” With equal parts wonder and cynicism, Widows examines what it is like to live in a crumbling world and system where success and survival is a competitive zero-sum game with winners and losers.
Let’s start with the titular roles. Although four men died in Chicago on that fateful heist, we squarely focus on 3 of them. Viola Davis is Veronica, head of her teacher’s union and wife to Harry (Liam Neeson), the master thief. With the money from Harry’s exploits, we see how Veronica was able to buy herself into Chicago’s elite, living in a literal ivory tower (a penthouse overlooking the lake) where her money and status had all but subsumed her identity as a black woman in America. For instance, Veronica finds little in common with Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a woman from Southside working multiple jobs to provide for her kids in the “gig economy” and is later hired to help our leads with their heist. Meanwhile, Alice, played by a scene-stealing Elizabeth Debicki was never as fortunate. A high school dropout Polish-American living in West Town, her thief husband (Jon Bernthal) was an abusive bully, but ultimately a means to an end for a woman who struggled with her sense of self-worth. She becomes an escort, to make ends meet. Finally, there’s Linda, essentially representing Chicago’s Latin community, her husband’s dealings were a way to bring the dream of her own business, a Quinceanera Boutique, to life.
To say these women’s’ lives were essentially uprooted by their respective husband’s death and failure would be an understatement. Co-writer Gillian Flynn of Gone Girlfame has built her reputation on complex portraits of women asserting agency and control over their lives. Widows is definitely of a piece with such matters, but it’s also willing to pull back the camera, so to speak to dissect the larger forces at play. To explore what exactly would drive these women’s husbands, their breadwinners, to obtain wealth through crime and theft as opposed to more “legitimate” means.
And that’s the kicker in Widows: the distinction between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” means of obtaining wealth is ultimately an arbitrary one. That’s what makes Chicago ultimately the perfect backdrop for such a tale. Chicago is notorious in the media for reports of gang violence and political corruption but Widows eschews such simplistic broad strokes in favor of a more intersectional look at a modern American city.
Chicago is a city where everyone will tell you they “know a guy,” where hustles and favors are as ubiquitous as exclaiming “ope!” when passing people by on the train. This is extrapolated when the film shows us how the ripples of a simple heist performed on the west side also affects rising political heir Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and his opponent, a crime boss turned community organizer Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry). The two are in a neck & neck race for the position of Alderman in their district, shown in the movie as the gateway to the coveted Mayor’s office. The only thing they need to take them over the edge on election night? Money. And it almost doesn’t matter who or where the money comes from so long as it gets them in power. As much as these two very different men may say they wish to change things for the better, ultimately it is greed that intertwines their destinies.
In Widows, for someone to have, someone else must be a have not. And nothing is given without something else being taken. Business owners need to have the right palms greased to stay in business, and everyone from those keeping the trains running to those preaching charity and goodwill for the lord in the church have their coffers open for a “donation.” In every heist movie, audiences have an instinct to find sympathy and empathy for those doing the stealing. “They were driven by poverty” or “it’s for a good cause” float through our minds.
At the end of the day when most of us supposedly know better than to break the law for the almighty dollar, there is an escapist bent to watching people “cheat” a difficult system and buy their way into a life where not having enough money isn’t a major worry. You can make the blanket statement that everyone in Widows is driven by greed and while a more nihilistic film would look at that with a more condemning eye, the film finds that the true monstrosity lies not in people simply wanting “more” and “better” but rather a world that would endear want and desperation. Widows doesn’t pretend to have a “solution” so much as finding catharsis in people’s ability to adapt and survive when surrounded by hardship and cruelty.
The old cliché is that “crime doesn’t pay.” Widows goes from a good crime drama into one of the great ones by having the guts to say that crime does not only pay, but it also pays well. The trick, however, is not getting caught and that part becomes a whole other matter in a world where one way or another: no one is innocent.