* contains spoilers
Ostensibly, Steve McQueen’s latest film is a thriller, but to categorise it as such is to undermine its emotional depth and deft characterisation. Adapted from Lynda La Plante’s television series by McQueen and Gillian Flynn, whose screenwriting efforts on Fincher’s Gone Girl demonstrated her quick, efficient style of writing, Widows focuses on the emotional impact of the actions of a group of men, criminals who, up until now, have successfully garnered vast quantities of money without error. Each widow of the title has, through various means, suffered at the hands of her partner, and each, after the unexpected demise of their partner, is compelled to partake in a final crime to finally achieve independence and freedom.
Not only do these women need to be without their male counterpart in order to become independent, but they also have to subsume a hitherto male role, a role that was played by their partner. Veronica (Viola Davies), recognising that her husband Harry’s death (Liam Neeson) has left her without financial aid, or stability, uses the plan that he has left her to enact his next conceived robbery. Outwardly, Veronica remains wealthy and respectable; immaculately dressed, eloquent and seemingly self-possessed, yet she is left bereft and entirely alone.
As the narrative later reveals, Veronica was, after the death of her beloved son, essentially rejected by her husband who has sought to develop a continuation of their marriage with another woman and a new son. She is repeatedly underestimated by those around her, particularly the men who believe that they know her, who she is and what she is capable of. In leaving the plans for her, Harry believed that she would simply use them as a bargaining tool, a means to pay off the debts that Harry has accumulated and disowned. This method of manipulation does not enter Veronica’s discourse. Seemingly Harry believes that Veronica is inactive, incapable of acting of her own accord, yet Veronica’s first instinct is to actively engage with the plan, to study it, and gather other women to help her undertake it.
The women that Veronica enlists to help her carry out the plan are women who she is, through Harry’s actions, linked to. It is this shared experience that helps the women, despite their different backgrounds and motivations, recognise the value in one another, a value that has not been recognised by the men in their lives. It takes a fellow woman to perceive that each other has intelligence and determination, and it is their interaction with one another that ensures that this is achieved. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) struggles to rid herself of her overreliance on men. Encouraged by her mother, she arranges an escort style relationship in order to try and maintain the stability of her materially comfortable lifestyle. Yet the man that she enlists to do so is, like her deceased husband, lacking in the ability to recognise her individuality or independence. It is only through Veronica that she is finally able to assert herself. Previously used to having everything provided for her, Veronica’s demands (such as purchasing firearms, or a vehicle to be used for the plan) forces Alice to confront the person that she has become. Rather than relying on the men around her, she quickly recognises her own ability.
Similarly, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), lied to by her partner into believing that the dress shop that she has devoted hours to is her own, is drawn into aiding Veronica, realising that both her sense of stability and her own definition of herself has been brought into question. No longer is she a business owner, but a widow with dependents. This shift in perception is one that is, for Linda, potentially damaging. The shop, one that presents and markets her own creations, is not only an opportunity for a creative outlet but one that allows her to present a particular image of herself to the world. Her deceased husband’s actions have taken this away from her, and she is left feeling undermined and foolish.
Notably, it is only when the women mask themselves, and hide their gender, that they are able to achieve empowerment. Veronica notes that they are able to hide behind their gender, as it is through their gender that they have been underestimated previously. Veronica recognises this and subverts their lack of power to seek empowerment. Each woman, then, once the plan has been completed, and successfully so, is able to live independently without the need to rely on a demanding, and manipulative partner.