Along with American Animals, Ocean’s Eight and Logan Lucky, Steve McQueen’s Widows marks the waning of the heist film in American culture. Typically, the heist genre involves people from diverse backgrounds converging on a common purpose, just as the heist effectively functions as a horizon of common representation. Yet Widows is quite sceptical about the possibility of that horizon existing in the first place, partly as a result of the diversity of interests that make up its ensemble vision of Chicago. First, there is a gang of career criminals, led by Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), who are depicted perishing in an explosion at the start of the film. Second, there are Tom and Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall), part of a political dynasty that have always ruled a particular ward of Chicago. Second, there are Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) and his brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), a pair of hustlers who are opposing the Mulligans for control of the ward, and are trying to make the transition into legitimate politics. Lastly, and most importantly there are the widows of the career criminals – Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) – who are compelled to perform their husbands’ next planned heist when Jamal informs them that part of the money lost in the opening explosion came out of his pocket. Joining Veronica, Linda and Alice is Belle (Cynthia Ervo), a babysitter who becomes part of their team, and substitutes for Amanda (Carrie Coon), the fourth widow, whose parenting responsibilities prevents her from playing a role in the heist.
From the very start of the film, it’s clear that Widows has an ambivalent relation to representational politics. On the one hand, McQueen is emphatic in placing a diverse spectrum of women – black, Hispanic, white – front and centre. On the other hand, part of Jack Mulligan’s electoral campaign involves a fairly cynical Minority Women Owned Work Program, whose goals often seems to be eerily close to those of the film itself. Yet it’s not representation per se but masculine representation – or the idea of representation as an inherently masculine construct – that seems to be preoccupying McQueen here. Despite the plethora of different voices in the film, the only two representative horizons at which all the different identities of the film can converge are a white man (Mulligan) and a black man (Jamal), both of whom are inextricably complicit in the political corruption that percolates throughout the film, and the continuous relegation of women (especially women of colour) to precarious labour positions. While the death of the women’s husbands may result in a sudden evacuation and evisceration of any immediate masculine agency or intentionality, it simply serves to reiterate that the only options for these women being “represented” seem to start and end with the black and white masculinist horizons that galvanise the election.
In that sense, Widows feels like a reproach to a very particular kind of anti-racist Hollywood film – one in which black men and white men (typically macho black men and white men) reach a grudging acknowledgment of each others’ masculinity that is supposed to stand in for a broader racial détente, even though it excludes any identity that doesn’t conform to these masculine standards. Put another way, McQueen seems prescient of the necessity of intersectionality, or the inextricability of black progression from intersectionality – a prescience that also spurred the emergence of Black Lives Matter, which defined itself as an intersectional project from the outset. As the film presents it, and as Black Lives Matter also often presents it, “representation” and intersectionality are two mutually incompatible ideas, insofar as true intersectionality remains sceptical of any one voice that claims to fully account for the African-American experience. In the early stages of Widows, you sense McQueen really grappling with this idea, and with its logical extension – that representation is always in some sense masculine, just as the claim to dissolve local or immediate differences into a collective utterance is always in some sense gendered as masculine also.
Within the genre parameters of Widows, that amounts to a prescience, early on, that the heist genre is an inherently masculine genre, since its conception of convergence on a common representation – and the heist itself as a common representation – is in and of itself inimical to intersectionality, just as intersectionality lies in precisely what resists being converged on a common representative horizon. Structurally, most heist films are about a group of people who are diverse enough to fulfil the skills required for the heist, but not so diverse that they can’t work together – or, rather, pitched at precisely the point of diversity where they can come together momentarily in the name of the heist, but are then forced to go their separate ways, producing the centrifugal first act and centripetal third acts so typical of the genre as a whole. By contrast, Widows deals with a group of women who are so intersectional from the outset that they never quite come together around the heist, which in some ways exhausts the heist film, but in other ways feels like an apotheosis of the heist film – a vision of skill sets so multifarious that they eventually eclipse the heist itself.
Rather than resist the heist film per se, then, Widows instead overidentifies with it, and takes it to its logical and aesthetic conclusion, in what often feels like a bid for the last major heist film to be made by Hollywood, suffused with an elegiac sense of lateness and finitude. Just as the heist film often bears an ambivalent relation to identity, so it bears an ambivalent relation to precarious labour, since on the one hand heists are designed to relieve precarity by providing instantaneous wealth, but on the other hand are designed to provide a thrill of precarity that the heist participants need in order to be true to their skills. In Widows, that situation is extended further, as the heist simply becomes a way of maintaining the precarity, and the fluid sense of identity, that all four women need to remain alive, as McQueen positions genuine intersectionality as an inherently precarious outlook, and incapable of being resolved by the mere material rewards of the heist that sustains it. In part, then, the heist is about escaping the world that the widows inhabit, but it’s also about intensifying that world – partly about accessing another space, but also about literally creating another space that displaces the space they’re all meant to be infiltrating.
For that reason, Widows never quite summons up the centrifugal energy needed for a regular heist film, just as there’s no clear sense of the women converging on one shared experience. If anything, that convergent energy, and the traditional heist setup, is deflected onto Mulligan and Jamal, who spend a great deal of the film circling around the widows and trying to infiltrate the precarious intersectional structure they have build around themselves. Rather than performing a heist themselves, the women are forced to escape the heist that the men are trying to perform on them, turning the heist itself into a structure of feeling that by definition precludes their voices and experiences, leaving them with two options. The first is for them to perform a heist-within-a-heist, the route taken by Ocean’s Eight, where it forms part of a broader approach to the heist genre that is just as irreverent as Widows, but in the opposite way. While Widows dissociates its heist participants from any shared purpose, and slackens the centrifugal and centripetal energy of the heist film, Ocean’s Eight intensifies it, by way of a group of women – and especially a central friendship – that is so solid that heist feels more or less incidental, allowing the relationships between the characters to more or less continue as they did before after the heist itself is completed.
By contrast, the widows in Widows seek out one ingenious line of flight from the logic of the heist after another, suffusing the film with a diffuse quality that gradually displaces the heist as a point of focus, even as preparation for the heist contours ever scene. Only in the final thirty minutes do we realise that the target is the Mulligan household, just as the goal of the heist is to prevent Mulligan and Jamal from conducting their own heist on the four women. Once Veronica and her team arrive, there is virtually no attention to the logistical architecture of the heist – they get in easily, and deal with a few hiccups summarily – with McQueen reserving most of his attention to their escape from the house, and from the heist logic that Mulligan and Jamal have brought to their claims to political representation in the first place. Yet this exit from the house is fairly brutal and blunt – they simply shoot Mulligan Sr. on their way out – while its brutality doesn’t seem to cement the rapport amongst the women in any enduring way either. As Veronica observes early on, “There is not going to be some cosy reunion – after this we’re done,” and even the most suspenseful moments in the heist never really like a point of connection between the women, with Veronica reminding them moments before they go in that “If something goes wrong there, you’re on your own.”
Even more striking than this evisceration of the heist, however, is the evisceration of the film itself around the continuous displacement of the heist. By definition, heists are ensemble dramas, since they require a seamless and deft ensemble of characters and skills to be successfully executed. With the heist itself displaced, McQueen’s command of his ensemble gradually fractures as the film proceeds, as subplots grow more cursory, characters are written off abruptly, and certain key scenes don’t make a great deal of sense in terms of tone and narrative. At moments, it almost feels as if we’re watching a fragment of a ten hour film, or a television series. Nevertheless, you sense that, even if he had ten hours, McQueen would still be forced into this progressive fracture, just because the heist is so categorically removed as a point of stable reference. Beyond a certain point, then, Widows feels caught midway between an idea and a screenplay, between conception and execution, unable to quite bring itself to be a fully-formed ensemble drama or heist film. In a way, it’s the ambivalence of an auteurist male director making a comment about the limits of auteurist representation – and making that comment in an auteurist way – producing a representative bind that prevents any of the characters ever quite being realised, and precludes the ending from generating any genuine catharsis, surprise or tonal momentum.
Whether or not you read that as a gesture of self-interrogation on McQueen’s part or as a slightly tone-deaf effort to lambast the very structures of representation that he himself is perpetuating will probably be a matter of taste or individual experience. At times, it feels as if McQueen is doing exactly what he is criticizing Mulligan and Jamal for doing, while at other times his manner often recalls Martin McDonagh’s directorial voice in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – that of a non-American lecturing Americans, and especially American women, about their plight. The risk of this profound atonality and fractured momentum is that it can also produce an overcooked sense of allegory – a “seriousness” – that also reminded me of Three Billboards, especially since much of the film is slow in a fairly staid and middlebrow way, despite a few moments of convulsive and kinetic violence.
Yet that all just makes Davis the best conceivable person to anchor the film, since much of her screen persona has been built on a refusal to “represent” black women in the manner prescribed by Hollywood, whether through a remote solemnity or a surfeit of affect, both which testify to her unwillingness and inability to accept the claims of representation so often foisted upon her shoulders. And both of these aspects of her screen persona are burnished here, as she presents herself as the fleeting focus of a fractured film, continually weaving and dodging away from the representative role audiences might project onto her, and ensuring that Widows is never quite more or less than the sum of its fractured parts, but never quite aligned with the heist genre in a comfortable or convergent manner either.