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‘Widows’ Is a Best-Case Female Ensemble (and a Great Movie, Too)

In the era of gender-reversal reboots and girl-power IP, the Steve McQueen heist is an exhilarating film that just happens to star women. We could use many more of those.

20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration

There’s but one moment in Widows that even approaches a girl-power fist-pump. “The best thing we have going for us is us being who we are,” Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) tells her partners in crime on the precipice of their climactic heist. “Because no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.” Even then, what plays in the heart-thumping trailer as a mic drop moment reads more, in context, like the cool-eyed assessment of a pragmatist. (Veronica’s just reminded her coconspirators they have mere days to re-create the skills and camaraderie of an experienced crew of men.) Widows is not a movie that celebrates female solidarity for solidarity’s sake, nor goes out of its way to announce and congratulate itself as the rare crime story about women. It just simply is.

Widows arrives at a time when the unholy fusion of pop feminism and IP fever has reached its logical endpoint. On one hand, women onscreen are thought of as a good way to attract real-life women’s (and men’s) hard-earned dollars; on the other hand, so are nostalgia objects from Hollywood’s straighter, whiter, dudelier past. And so the entertainment industry has opted to split the difference, reviving past properties while giving them a cosmetic gender swap. Two years ago, Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters became an accidental lightning rod, a controversy that ultimately worked to conceal the movie’s status as an innocuous piece of popcorn fare—more mild-mannered homage than childhood-ruiner. This spring, Ocean’s 8 offered a sunnier, sprightlier version of the all-ladies heist than Widows, plus a slew of triple-underlined parallels to its predecessors. Debbie Ocean is (deceased) Danny Ocean’s actual sister; louche, suit-clad Cate Blanchett is the Brad to her George.

These tentpoles’ nine-figure takes have guaranteed they’re but the first ripples of an onrushing wave. Next year, Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson will star in The Hustle, a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Taraji P. Henson will headline What Men Want, a revisionist take on one of the more regrettable premises of the ’90s. And in 2017, the announcement that a male writer and director would be stewarding an all-female adaptation of literary classic Lord of the Flies inspired widespread jeers. Meet the new Hollywood, same as the old Hollywood—just with an extra X chromosome.

Widows is, itself, technically a remake, of a 1980s Lynda La Plante miniseries beloved by cowriter-director Steve McQueen in his childhood. But as the title suggests, the gender of the protagonists is not among the changes McQueen and script partner Gillian Flynn made to the concept. The run time is condensed to just more than two hours; the setting is updated to the present day; the action is transplanted to Flynn’s current home of Chicago, complete with a political subplot pitting an Irish-Catholic machine dynasty against an African American upstart. But the womanhood of its main characters and the conditions that come with it—their status as wives and mothers; their perception by men in power, and how they can manipulate it—remains integral to the story. It’s a starting point, not a superficial add-on.

A lobbyist for the Chicago Teachers Union, Veronica has spent decades married to Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), a career criminal successful enough to afford them a glass box in a high-rise and an on-staff chauffeur. When Harry and his crew fail to survive a job gone awry, Veronica assumes his status as ringleader to make good on his outstanding debts. Her makeshift crew is brought together by necessity, not team spirit. Linda’s (Michelle Rodriguez) husband, Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), nursed a secret gambling hobby that’s posthumously robbed her of her clothing store. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) has been conditioned from birth to be cared for by, and under the control of, other people, to the point where her mother suggests escort work as her only viable employment option. And if that weren’t incentive enough, Veronica coldly implies she’ll happily hand them over to their debtor if either refuses to participate in her scheme. So much for grief support.

From the plan’s inception, then, the titular widows’ reasons for joining in, or imperative to join in, are tied up in how they’ve been treated as women. Of the three, Harry and Veronica’s marriage came closest to a true partnership; though the script—spoiler alert—slowly reveals deeper fissures in their relationship, she still makes the most seamless transition from bystander to participant. Linda trusted her spouse to provide for her and manage her affairs, only to be left high and dry by his irresponsibility. Alice has been abused her entire life, by both her husband and, in a trademark Gillian Flynn twist, her mother. At least when they first meet, Veronica’s just one more authority figure telling her what to do. A fourth recruit, Cynthia Erivo’s hustling hairdresser Belle, doesn’t have to be strong-armed—a single mom who regularly sprints across town for a $12-an-hour gig, she jumps at the chance for a million-dollar payday. These are providers and survivors, not stepping into a male role so much as compensating for the absence of one with their own reserves of willpower.

The comparison with the reboot style of female ensemble isn’t entirely unflattering; there’s room in the world for breezy romps like Ocean’s 8, Widows’ easiest comparison, and tense barnstormers alike. I’ve long been a defender of the frictionless mode of competence porn that is Ocean’s 8, seamless collaboration being as much an aspirational fantasy as scamming one’s way into the Met Gala or hanging out with Rihanna. But Widows mines something much richer from the interplay between Veronica and her recruits. In my screening, Erivo earned audible gasps for pivoting seamlessly from comic relief into a credible stand-off with Viola Davis—Viola Davis! Alice gradually learns to assert herself; Linda upbraids the others for careening into the underworld without fully understanding its consequences. And Veronica, who spends the majority of the film visibly suppressing her emotions in the name of getting shit done, finally opens herself up to human connection. What sets these women apart—in class, life experience, and temperament—is as compelling as what ties them together.

The places where McQueen and Flynn do add an extra dimension to La Plante’s story are far more thoughtfully and fully integrated than the casual identity swap of most blockbuster reimaginings. For much of Widows runtime, the movie allows the viewer to believe the race of Davis’s character is almost immaterial, in a way that would be itself somewhat refreshing. After all, Veronica is a haughty, entitled, rich lady, with a yappy, fluffy dog straight off the set of a Real Housewives reunion. It’s both fun and striking to watch a black woman effortlessly inhabit this position without comment. But a handful of devastating twists late in the film wield that assumption against the audience, confronting us with the ways her blackness has influenced her life and marriage in a way that’s forceful, yet never forced. (In the 1983 Widows, Veronica’s antecedent is white, though Belle’s was originated by Barbadian British actress Eva Mottley.)

Representation, at least for groups underserved enough to push for more of it, can be roughly sorted into two camps: the ones that call attention to their exceptionalism, and those that take it as a matter of fact. The ideal, of course, is enough of each for neither to stand out—not all LGBT stories have to be about coming out, and yet not all sitcom casts should be a sprinkling of visual diversity left to speak for itself. Widows, remarkably, manages to straddle both schools at once. The movie isn’t interested in being about women, or even womanhood, so much as the specific women we watch mature from partners of convenience into true equals. And yet these people aren’t a mere substitute for an archetypal male character, nor a recognizable iteration of a particular one. They’re not their husbands, and yet to paraphrase Veronica, it’s they who have the balls to pull off what their husbands could not.