Just short of standing out
Some of the earliest narratives of the big screen focused on heists. The Great Train Robbery made in 1903 is still remembered as one of the earliest fiction films and, following the popularity of the American Dime novel, worked to tell, and arguably create, the cinematic tale of the good guys and bad guys. Back then, as now, exactly who is the good guy or the bad guy when robbing a bank has always been a kind of grey area. Me, I’ve always kind of supported the robbers rather than the cops – the cowboys rather than the sheriffs, DeNiro rather than Pacino, and Swayze over Keanu Reeves any day (back off Warchild). Whether it’s the pleasure of the chase, the appeal of the slick suits and gear, the cool masks, ingenious heists, or a simple affinity with the underdog, I think I’m probably not alone, especially today, in wanting to see somebody successfully getting one over on the man – a phrase with perhaps more literal meaning here than elsewhere.
I approach the opening of the brand new Everyman theatre Glasgow poised with a press-pass and a poorly thought out plan of my own to rob as much free stuff as possible. The open bar, plentiful canapés, free sweets and popcorn rather scupper this plan and half-drunk on free champagne and cocktails I enter the preview screening of Steve McQueen’s newest film Widows with an emboldened, if now slightly misplaced, sense of support for the robbers.
Indeed, in a film that sees the widowed wives of four career criminals forced to pull off a robbery through a combination of financial, political and violent pressures, my support seems initially well placed. Unfortunately, as the various antagonists are introduced in various, and simplified, forms of evil, the hope for any kind of anti-hero is washed away with the increasingly Manichean plot. That is, whilst there is a genuine representation of the shamefully often invisible, underpaid, and underappreciated work of women, each character is quickly and rather indelicately squeezed into their respective female pigeonholes – punch bag, sex object, overworked mother and underpaid employee. These issues are condensed into stereotypical, if plainly all too common, set pieces – a black eye at breakfast, a hotel pick-up, a run for the late night bus to your second job, which work to create a genuine, if slightly cheap, empathy for the four female protagonists. As mentioned, this is helped by the ultimately one dimensional male characters who offer a variety of bastardry in the form of white patriarchal privilege – manifested in both Robert Duvall’s and Colin Farrell’s political father and son duo Tom and Jack Mulligan, and an aggressive type of black masculinity – epitomised in crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) and his creeping henchman Jatemme, played with unsettling ease by Daniel Kaluuya. These characters, whilst often impressively played, simplify the issues of nepotism, domestic violence, inequality, privilege and political and religious corruption to the point of almost parody and in doing so flirt with, rather than genuinely problematise, these massively complex issues.
There are other ways of course of conveying such themes, and McQueen skilfully fills many of the scenes with an imagery and dialogue that does attempt to add a more nuanced perspective to the issues of class, gender, race and inequality. In one memorable scene, Jack Mulligan travels from a short appearance at a small political rally in an almost derelict urban neighbourhood to his lavish mansion at the other side of town. The camera, positioned on the outside of the car, holds a gaze that reveals the sickening inequalities between those who live physically so close, yet financially and socially so far apart.
In terms of style, as the protagonists build toward the heist the usual tropes of cinematic robbery fall repetitively into place. The plans, the blueprints, the gear, the masks, the driver, the guns. Whilst these scenes deliver the visual fetish and narrative tension of planning and executing a robbery now expected in such films, it comes at a loss of autonomy for the otherwise often empowered female characters. For instance, Veronica (Viola Davis), the leader of the widowed gang, uses her dead husband’s, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), leftover plans to plot the robbery, whilst the blueprints that Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) obtains arrive via a vague and unexplained sexual encounter of some kind. If women are to rob a bank it seems, they must still rely on men, even dead ones, or their own sexualised bodies.
They must also only be driven by the most moral of causes. All the people that the women shoot are clearly labelled bad guys – they might as well be holding a sign. No innocent bystanders in the righteous robbery of the oppressed. And, whilst seeing these burdened characters wreak revenge on the people and institutions that still openly oppress women today is somewhat enjoyable, it all seems slightly rushed. (Based on an original twelve-part 1983-1985 TV series of the same name, written by Lynda La Plante, it’s no surprise that at times the narrative feels slightly claustrophobic placed into a 129-minute film.)
The “wronged woman” character is nothing new in these kind of robbery narratives – think Thelma and Louise (1992) or Baise-Moi (2000) – but in attaching the cause of the robbers so strongly to such varied social issues, films like this can often fail to ask the question if sometimes women might also just want to rob a bank because you know, money. In doing so they rob – no pun intended, the female characters of the individuality, autonomy and, let’s be honest, style afforded to most male bank robbers who often don’t need such admirable justification for their acts.
I left the Everyman and took a complimentary box of sweets on the way out. I’d got to see the film for free and drank, arguably, too many free Manhattans to really remember the whole plot and write a decent review. Ultimately, whilst sticking painfully at times to the simple good guys and bad guys, the film still manages to deliver more character depth, skilful cinematography and social critique than many a “blow the bloody doors off” macho bank-job flick.