In 1996, amid a film landscape where lurid movies about Mafiosi competed with equally lurid ones about the so-called inner city, a movie called Set It Off offered something different. Directed by F. Gary Gray, the film centered on four women, played by Jada Pinkett, Queen Latifah, Vivica Fox, and Kimberly Elise, who embark on a series of bank robberies, each for her own reasons. (Stony, Pinkett's character, is driven to crime because of her anger at the police over the death of her brother, who was gunned down by the Los Angeles Police Department in a case of mistaken identity.) The action builds steadily toward a more ambitious bank robbery, pulled off at the film's climax.
I wasn't even a teenager when Set It Off came out, but it made a deep impression and ended up reframing my interest in what a heist film could be. It wasn't just that there were black women as the leads, but that their motives for the heist were tied only partially to greed. There was a real emotional desire at the heart of Set It Off, and the viewer could sense the urgency of desire for revenge, or the need to extract reparations for trauma. Fox's character begins the movie as a victim of a bank robbery at her job as a teller, and she loses her job when it comes out that she knows one of the robbers. Elise's character gets into crime because she sees no other way to feed her family. These women aren't criminal masterminds or kingpins; they're people who reached a logical conclusion out of anger, fear, desperation, and circumstance. And watching that is thrilling—if also a bit complicated.
I went into Steve McQueen's Widows with hopes that the British director would reframe heist films the way Set It Off did, leaning into some of the more complex dimensions of the genre. When heist movies aren't good, it's often because the robotic task of prepping the heist—the incessant planning of small details—becomes so central to the plot that the characters themselves can become a distant concern. Widows, much like Set It Off, fights against that easy tendency.
The short version of Widows is that, after four men get murdered in a heist, their wives and girlfriends have to take over the crime business—otherwise they won't be able to repay a debt that they now owe, thanks to their husbands' final failed job.
The widowed women are Veronica, played by Viola Davis; Linda, played by Michelle Rodriguez; and Alice, played by Elizabeth Debicki. After the men die, Veronica finds an old notebook with plans for a heist left behind by her husband, Harry. She then convinces the other widows to join her in pulling it off. When they are unable to convince the fourth widow, Amanda (Carrie Coon), to join, Belle (Cynthia Erivo) joins the team as a driver.
Widows is brilliantly messy and cynical, hardly overwrought and almost never romantic. Few characters are outright sympathetic. Alice is perhaps as close as it comes, given the abuse that viewers see her endure, first at the hand of her husband and then, after he's gone, at the hands of her mother. For Alice, the heist seems to be rooted in empowerment, in the freedom that the money will grant her.
In movies like Heat or Goodfellas, where criminals are the protagonists, and they aren't very sympathetic, I find myself generally entertained but hardly invested in the action. I'm not rooting for the success of the crime, and I'm also not rooting for any of the criminals to go out in a blaze of glory. What's different with Widows is that—as with Set It Off—the women aren't criminals by trade. When they find each other, we're given to believe that they're all largely oblivious to the double lives that their husbands had been leading. What also helps is that, throughout their planning and preparation, it's clear to the viewer that these women weren't written to bond with each other on screen, developing redemptive friendships that will reassure the audience. There are tender moments here and there—before and even during the heist—but the overall impression is that these are separate women who are living separate lives from each other, thrust into an impossible situation and trying to make the best of how absurd and dangerous it all is. They still tend to their responsibilities: Linda to her children, Alice to an ill-fated escort arrangement that's grown into an exclusive romantic relationship, Veronica to the trauma of losing her husband and—as we later find out—a son, who was gunned down by police during a traffic stop.
Yes, all of these threads make Widows a commentary on corruption, loss, politics, and race. But what drives it forward so well is the mission of the women: not to bond with each other, not to look fun in montages, but rather to make lives for themselves out of the wreckage that their husbands left behind. It is delightful to see women not simply suffering for the bad behavior of the men they were once connected to, but instead taking control over their own stories and their own survival.
To praise the emotional resonance of the film is to also praise the actors. Davis is by turns stoic and relentlessly angry in a way that doesn't allow for much humor or lightness. She bestows most of her tenderness on the small dog she spends most of the movie carrying around, and on her late husband's driver, who stays in his job even after Harry is gone. Another highlight is Daniel Kaluuya, who plays a violent enforcer—a stock character in any film about organized gangsters, but Kaluuya's turn is notable for the simple fear he elicits, often through a menacing and methodical silence.
Still, what impresses me most about Widows is the same thing that impresses about Set It Off. The heist film, reframed, has to lean on the emotional stakes of the people doing the heist. Everyone triumphing in their ill-gotten riches rings hollow if the riches themselves are the goal—but when there's emotional freedom or self-triumph resting on the other side of the money, it's a different and much more interesting story. In Widows, the riches themselves are secondary. They are a means to an end—almost; the heist has to work out, or the women are doomed. But in the process, the film really becomes about what it looks like for someone who has lived in the shadow of another person to step outside of that shadow and make a name for herself.