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How ‘Widows’ Uses Casting As a Weapon

As director Steve McQueen clearly knows, you can’t leave your preconceived notions about certain actors at the door

20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

Steve McQueen’s Widows opens with a kiss. But not just any kiss. Veronica (Viola Davis) and Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) are lying next to each other, full-on making out, tongues fiercely intertwined. For some, it might be an off-putting way to start a movie, but this moment, dovetailed with spliced-together scenes of both the other robbers’ domestic lives and them working a heist gone wrong with Harry, has a purpose. Among the relationships that guide Widows’ tragic and complex story, the shared love between Veronica and Harry is the most genuine. Or so we’re led to believe.

If you’re reading this, hopefully you’ve already seen Widows and know its biggest twist: That Harry didn’t die in the opening sequence, but rather orchestrated the fatal explosion with the help of Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the sleazy politician running for alderman of a Chicago precinct his family has presided over for decades. Faking his death—while also killing his crew of robbers, mind you—provides Harry the opportunity to run away with the wife of one of his partners, the freshly widowed Amanda Nunn (the great Carrie Coon, playing a not-so-great person), with whom he has an infant child. By the time the pieces of Harry’s betrayal click together—thanks to a helpful assist from Veronica’s very perceptive dog—you feel a mixture of sadness, rage, and resentment. Least of all because it’s Liam Neeson inflicting all this emotional pain—on us, and, most sacrilegious of all, on Viola Davis. It’s painful, but it’s also brilliant.

Widows is a blockbuster full of ideas, and McQueen (along with cowriter Gillian Flynn) unpacks them with clever staging and camera work—like the oner from the front of Mulligan’s car that illustrates the racial and economic divide between the Mulligan family and the impoverished district he intends to represent. But Widows’ most understatedly effective move might’ve been casting Neeson as Harry Rawlings. Because while Harry’s betrayal is taken straight from the 1983 British miniseries that inspired the film, selecting a beloved actor like Neeson makes the narrative twist all the more devastating. In having him play a traitorous husband, Widows weaponizes the audience’s preconceived, almost entirely positive, feelings about Neeson.

Neeson isn’t the transparently wholesome actor that someone like Tom Hanks is, but in the past decade he’s played a plethora of gruff characters who operate from a place of good, even if their actions are violent. Consider the Taken franchise, or, frankly, any movie that involves his character and a mode of transportation. There’s something oddly comforting in knowing that, next year, he’s going to be in a movie called Cold Pursuit playing a vengeful—but ultimately moral—snow-plow driver. It just feels right; enough so that Key & Peele could make multiple viral skits extolling the virtues of “straight Tooken”–style Neeson.

As we also discover by the end of the film, the Rawlings marriage had been fractured for a while, ever since their son was shot and killed by a police officer when his car was pulled over for a routine stop. (As he reaches for the glove compartment, the cop panics and shoots him multiple times.) The brief subplot is yet another moment in which McQueen and Flynn unpack an idea that isn’t necessarily central to the movie’s plot; for Neeson, this devastating turn deepens his character, while reaffirming our feelings for the actor and forcing us to call to mind the more tragic elements of his personal life.

Neeson’s wife, Natasha Richardson, died in 2009 when she suffered a head injury while skiing in Montreal. Neeson has talked about his wife’s tragic death sparingly—telling Anderson Cooper during a 60 Minutes interview in 2014 that he sought more acting work to deal with his grief so he wouldn’t “wallow too much” in front of their two children. Grief has colored several of Neeson’s recent roles: In the Taken franchise, his superhuman operative, Bryan Mills, has to avenge his ex-wife’s death in Taken 3, after dealing with the kidnapping of his daughter earlier in the series. In an otherwise silly and derivative third film, Mills’s sorrow—and the tacit acknowledgment that his old line of work put the people he loved in perpetual danger—is moving. Even the forthcoming plot of Cold Pursuit hinges on Neeson’s character losing his son, who was killed by the local cartel. Most transparently of all, Neeson voiced the titular monster of J.A. Bayona’s tear-jerking A Monster Calls, in which said monster visits a young boy and helps him through his grief as his mother slowly dies from cancer. In Widows and movies like these, it’s impossible not to empathize with Neeson’s characters, as their grief feels even more profound with the pre-established knowledge of what he’s been through in his personal life.

What makes Harry’s betrayal of Veronica in Widows so painful and infuriating is its selfishness. The Rawlingses both suffer from their son’s awful death, but instead of trying to mend what’s broken, Harry leaves his old life behind and lets Veronica deal with the fallout—including a $2 million debt to the dangerous Chicago crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Harry even tries to kill Veronica and take the money for himself after she successfully pulls off her daring heist, still set on beginning life anew with Amanda and his new son. Harry is truly, unequivocally awful—and though he’s not the first movie husband to abandon his wife, the act feels rawer and harsher. Because after years of seeing him as the caring, empathetic hero, it feels like Neeson has betrayed us too.

The primary subversive power of Widows is witnessing how a quartet of women, perceived by other men as ordinary, had, to quote Veronica herself, the “balls” to pull off a multimillion-dollar heist. But the film’s play on our feelings for Liam Neeson may have had the biggest effect. Future Neeson-starring films will be approached with serious trepidation. Our trust is now yet another tool for the actor to add to his particular set of skills.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to Liam Neeson’s character as Henry; the character’s name is Harry.