The incomplete feminism of Widows | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The incomplete feminism of Widows

It's at times fun, gripping, and if you want, "empowering."

click to enlarge Widows starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, and Elizabeth Debicki - TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
Twentieth Century Fox
Widows starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, and Elizabeth Debicki

The film industry is notably dominated by men, and that includes film critics. A 2016 study showed that 73 percent of the top critics on Rotten Tomatoes were men. Director Steve McQueen is aware of this fact to the point that he’s worried it’s harming the reception of Widows, an action-thriller co-written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn. The reception has been overwhelmingly positive, but McQueen worries that male film critics are enjoying it for the wrong reasons. “[M]en are a little bit tone deaf to certain aspects of feminism,” he said. Fortunately for him, this review was written by a woman. 

After her husband's latest heist ends in a deadly explosion, Veronica (Viola Davis) must turn her grief into vengeance, as she is forced to pay off her late husband's debts. To pull off her own heist, she enlists the wives of the other husbands killed in the crime, including Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), a dress shop owner with two young kids, and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), who is abused and fed up. Later, Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a hairdresser and non-widow joins the team as the driver. The women's plan is intertwined with a racially tense local Chicago election between dynastic hot-shot Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell, with a questionable accent) and gang leader Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), whose dirty work is carried out by his terrifying brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya). 

Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki
Opens Fri., Nov. 16

Viola Davis is great as usual, full of anger and passion, covered in a thick layer of composure. Debicki is swift and cunning, expertly using her presumed blonde naiveté to her advantage. Arguably the best shot of the movie is when she bites into a hot dog after buying guns. The biggest standout is Kaluuya as the enforcer, whose stare, let alone his maniacal grins, are bone-chilling. 

Widows’ plot unfolds like most heist movies, full of unoriginal but shocking twists. It's at times fun, gripping, and if you want, "empowering." The movie is obvious in its attempts at equal representation with the general tone that "this time, the wives are in charge!" The women get to do everything typically done by powerful men, like make deals in a sauna, stroke a tiny pet, and shove a gun down the front of their pants. When a member of the team questions why they’ll succeed, Veronica angrily says, "Because no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off." Women doing things because men think they can't is, I guess, feminism. But "having balls" is a corny and dated way to justify it. 

It’s an exciting action movie with shootouts and explosions plus ritzy decor and slick dialogue. But it also Has a Message, albeit a foggy one. Through all the scheming and heisting, McQueen and Flynn stuff as many contemporary issues as possible: sexism, racism, police brutality, political corruption, interracial marriage, gang violence, nepotism, immigration, and segregation. Most feel shoehorned in for the sake of statement-making and only muddle a plot already filled with unanswered questions.

Plot clutter aside, Widows' twists are thrilling, unfolding at a slow enough pace to build palpable tension but fast enough for the audience to stay alert. The cinematography is dynamic and reminiscent of Hitchcock in its use of cool shots just for the sake of cool shots, panning the camera to irrational but more interesting places.

Widows is a valiant effort, but ultimately falls short.  

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