This isn’t a real word, of course, but rather a portmanteau of “sad” and “progressive” that the political podcast Hysteria utilizes to describe all the monumental firsts for women in the latest election cycle. The first openly bisexual woman elected to the Senate? Sadgressive. The first Muslim and Latina women elected to the House of Representatives? Sadgressive. The largest incoming class of women to Congress — at least 123 (113 new and 10 continuing) out of 535 total representatives, with eight races still to be determined — making the midterms less of a blue wave and more of a pink one? Sadgressive.
It’s a word I think about a lot outside of politics, especially when it comes to entertainment. Every year, more historic firsts come to light that feel more shameful than celebratory — just think of Ava DuVernay being the first black woman to helm a $100 million film with A Wrinkle in Time, or Crazy Rich Asians being the first Asian-led big budget studio film in 25 years, or Black Panther being Black Panther.* This constant stream of firsts reveals how progressive Hollywood, now at just over a century old, is not. Appearances and lip service tend to mask the truth.
Which is partially why it shocked me to remember Widows isn’t actually the first female-centric heist movie we got in 2018. That honor belongs to Ocean’s 8, a fun romp of a reboot that came out in June (which, honestly, feels like 60 years ago). On the opposite end of the tonal spectrum, the pensive and desperate Widows isn’t even the first of its kind, as it is based on a 1983 British series written by Lynda La Plante and produced by Verity Lambert (whom you can thank for Doctor Who) that has largely been forgotten, save by a man whose imagination it captured when he watched it at the age of 13. That man was Widows’ director and co-writer, Steve McQueen.
In a recent interview with Little Gold Men, McQueen — a black man who grew up in West London — talks about how he instantly identified with the women of Widows because no one expected people who looked like them to be able to accomplish anything extraordinary. He talks about how the TV series captivated audiences like nothing before simply because it was so ahead of its time, and about how, 35 years later, his film is poised to do the same because movies like this simply do not get made or, if they do, are not widely distributed. His capital as the first black filmmaker to win the Academy Award for Best Picture with 2013’s 12 Years a Slave is just about the only thing that got Widows off the ground. (See? There’s another sadgressive first.)
And thank goodness it did because I’ve never seen anything like Widows.
The setup is simple, as it should be with any heist movie: A crew of thieves dies. The men from whom they stole demand payment from the crew’s widows. The widows, none having any practical knowledge of their husbands’ criminal world, plan and execute their own heist to save themselves and their families. Some things go wrong. Some things go right. In the end, the widows survive. Because that is what widows do.
You can see that simplicity in the trailers, but the true greatness of Widows lies in the combined skills of McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn, who are able to take a familiar story and layer it so deeply that nothing, not even a heist, is as simple as it seems. Together, they create a world where everything intersects — corruption, politics, race, gender, grief, guilt, cycles of abuse, upward mobility, financial stability, betrayal, support, selfishness, sacrifice — and nothing feels overwhelmingly didactic.
It’s quite a dance that McQueen and Flynn orchestrate, and much of the credit for making it work goes to the cast of Widows. There’s Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, and Michelle Rodriguez as the titular widows; Liam Neeson, Jon Bernthal, and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as dead and largely useless husbands; Cynthia Erivo and Carrie Coon as women whose involvement in the heist is peripheral until the very moment it isn’t; Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell as father-and-son Chicago politicians, the former entrenched in a Trumpian status quo and the latter privately wishing to escape from it; and Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya as brothers attempting to transition from criminal enterprise to community leadership. (Jackie Weaver, Garret Dillahunt, and Lukas Haas also make memorable appearances in tertiary roles.)
On paper, it seems like too much, but on screen, the balance feels nothing short of miraculous. There’s a clarity to both McQueen’s camera and his characters that most ensemble films struggle to find; even in the smallest roles, everything you need to know about a character is instantly apparent through hair, makeup and wardrobe, body language, shot composition, and precise dialogue. Nothing gets lost and everyone feels real, with their own internal conflicts and motivations.
And, most interestingly, no one is really the villain. That you are rooting for the widows is a given, but at some point, it becomes less clear whom you are rooting against. Is it Farrell’s politician, who has inherited his father’s corruption and hates both his father and his career path for it yet nonetheless continues to seek power? Is it his political rival, Henry’s almost-former crime boss, who wishes to become the first black alderman of his predominantly black south-side Chicago neighborhood? Is it Kaluuya, a magnetic shadow who balances the limits his brother places on him with visceral brutality? Or is it the dead husbands, whose selfishness and cruelty are more subtle, whose bad decisions when they were alive dooms their wives after they’ve died?
I suppose it’s no accident that all these potential villains are men, and that it is their collective crimes — literal and metaphorical — that force the widows to desperate extremes in order to ensure their own survival. They all have so much to lose before Henry and Kaluuya come calling for the money that went up in flames with their robber bridegrooms. Davis, who first survived her biracial son’s execution at a routine traffic stop 10 years ago and now faces financial ruin; Debicki, who has been coddled, abused, and exploited her entire life and refuses to take it anymore; and Rodriguez, who loses her business to her dead husband’s gambling debts and is in danger of losing her children to her bitter mother-in-law. All three bear the burdens of womanhood with a combination of the grace expected of them and the rage that the world prefers to ignore. All three have moments of strength and moments of weakness; all three are allowed to simultaneously navigate grief and commit a crime without being judged for it.**
I’m not sure I can express how refreshing that is. So many critics and filmmakers hold up Michael Mann’s Heat as the gold standard of crime movies, while I’ve always felt that it’s tremendously boring and overrated. So many heist movies are about men doing manly crimes for manly reasons, whether the tone is light and campy like Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy (or the vastly superior Logan Lucky) and Fast Five, or serious and high-stakes like Rififi and Inside Man. So many heist movies are just about committing a seemingly impossible crime and the thrill of getting away with it.
But with Widows, there’s no thrill, really. The heist itself is secondary to the film — which is more of a character study than anything else — and when it finally goes down, it feels terrifying. Not horror-movie terrifying, but the kind of terror and dread you feel when you know a hurricane is coming for your relatives in Florida and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. You know there’s not really a best-case scenario yet you can’t stop watching the news. You don’t have any other choice but to witness the destruction.
I won’t say much more about the heist because it’s better to experience that feeling the same way the widows do, but suffice to say it feels like nothing else because their fear comes from a place that is so deeply feminine, and so rarely put to screen and taken seriously. It actually makes me a little angry that McQueen, much like Alex Garland with Annihilation, nails this particular brand of female fear so goddamn well, but if anything it only proves that empathy is the key to great storytelling. McQueen’s been empathizing with women pushed to the verge since 1983, and it shows in every minute of Widows.
As the reviews come in, I’ve seen Widows described as “popcorn prestige,” which I think is a little misleading. With a slow pace and very little action, it leans more on the prestige side of things, and I think many viewers probably won’t connect with it the way I did. But listen: As much as I loved Ocean’s 8, I’m glad that movie isn’t my only option. I’m overjoyed that I finally have a heist movie that focuses on women and is 100% prestige. Sadgressive? Maybe a little. But I feel a little better about it now that this subgenre is growing.
Well, not just growing. Surviving.
* As I wrote this review, the news broke that 93-year-old Cicely Tyson will be the first African-American woman to receive an honorary Oscar. See what I mean about sadgressive?
**I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that Erivo’s character, who is not a widow but participates in the heist, is primarily here to Get Shit Done, and boy, does she ever.