I have been waiting for a movie that shows us a wife stepping up into the heroic role after her husband either fails or is taken out of the picture. We’ve had plenty of movies about the wife who is abandoned or widowed and has to learn how to make it on her own, but that’s a movie about a woman learning to take on the usual level of responsibilities expected of a man: making a living, supporting a family, etc. Let’s call that “Wife Movie Plot A.”
Heroes are, typically, men who have stepped up to another level of responsibility, where they take on the bad guys or defend the community. From there, they may step up to be superheroes. We have been getting movies about women stepping up to be heroines, even superheroines, recently. But these women are usually single women who already earn a living, are already responsible for themselves. They might be single moms, like Ryan in Gravity, who also take care of others. They are almost never wives who have been taken care of by a bread-winning husband. (The exception is Helen Parr of Incredibles, who gets the lead in the second movie, but that’s an animated film.)
Heroism is a stepwise process, and hardly anyone leaps up two steps at a time. Peter Parker, a/k/a Spider-man, is an exception: he goes from being a dependent teenager to a superhero overnight. That’s problematic. Most of the movie versions of his origin story spend more time on his resulting struggles to handle his new powers than they do on the actual fight with the bad guy.
The premise of Widows is that several women find themselves suddenly required to be heroic. Two of these women have been more or less taken care of by their husbands, although one has suffered abuse by her husband as well; the others have been trying to create livelihoods of their own already. They come together and each finds her own strength as they learn how to be heroic for a moment. Having done that, they are able to be self-sufficient in the world, no longer relying on a man (or held back by a man). Let’s call this “Wife Movie Plot B.”
That’s enough material for a movie, and the individual actresses (Viola Davis as Veronica, Elizabeth Debicki as Alice, Michelle Rodriguez as Linda, and Cynthia Erivo as Belle) do wonderful work with the screen time they are allotted.
But they’re given much less time than they deserve, because the men hog the screen. Far too many scenes are devoted to the political machinations going on not just between two candidates for alderman, but between those candidates and other people completely unnecessary to the plot. The subplot involving the relationship between Robert DeNiro’s demanding politician father and his reluctant-candidate son (Colin Ferrell) is given far too much screen time, as is the subplot about the minister-with-a-lot-of-influence. Daniel Kaluuya chillingly establishes his bad guy persona in the first scene we see him in; the second scene doesn’t tell us anything new and is not needed to set us up for when the widows encounter him.
Because their scenes are so truncated, the widows don’t get enough time to show us how they learn to work together and become a team of heroes. They start out hostile and suspicious of each other, but we never see the moment when they click. Their character arcs are likewise shorted: Alice goes from submissive victim to take-charge boss in a matter of a few days and becomes an ace shot in what appears to be one session at the shooting gallery. And the caper itself, which should have taken at least 15 minutes of the movie, happens in an eyeblink. I didn’t even have time to tense up and wonder if they could pull it off.
Because, it turns out, it’s not about the caper. It’s about Liam Neeson’s character, Veronica’s husband Harry, supposedly killed in the first few minutes of the movie. (This is not a spoiler: you know if he’d really died, he wouldn’t have been played by an A-list movie star.) The climax of the movie is not about four women finding their own inner strength, becoming heroines, and winning the day, but about a wife confronting the husband who lied to and abandoned her: an ending that belongs to Wife Movie Plot A.
If this had truly been a Plot B movie, we’d have learned only enough about the two political candidates to know that they’re both bad guys, that the widows—thanks to their loser husbands—have become entangled in the bad guys’ machinations through no fault of their own, and so the widows have to pull off a caper to free themselves. We would only need a few scenes with the two candidates and even less with the people behind them. Veronica would have not only figured out that Harry was still alive, but that he was behind the whole thing—and set him up to take the fall.
We’d have gotten to spend a lot more time with four superb actresses, been allowed to watch their characters overcome personal obstacles to claiming their power and then bond with each other, sat on the edges of our seats during the caper, and all in all, watched a much more satisfying movie.