This Widows article contains spoilers.
Steve McQueen’s brilliant, genre-defying drama Widows is not a heist movie. It’s a portrait of the financial insecurity of women and what happens when they try to fight back. Early on we learn that four criminals have kept the women in their life dependent and quiet in a variety of ways, though financial insecurity is not limited to the four widows or the four women who carry out the heist.
The connection between women’s financial independence and our ability to remain safe from physical, sexual, and emotional violence has been well-documented. If someone tries to separate you from your finances that is both a symptom of abuse and abuse in itself. 2016’s viral essay, “A Story of a Fuck Off Fund,” drew a stark comparison between two paths that start out similarly. A bad break here, a harassing boss or abusive boyfriend there, and suddenly an isolated reality trapped in a dead-end life came far too quickly. When we meet the women of Widows, they’re already most of the way down their own path, in long-term, committed relationships with men who lead a life of crime. Men who control their financial futures.
The women of Widows are quickly faced with a choice: Accept what has happened to them and beg for mercy, or take on some of the most powerful men in their city in an audacious and mysterious heist. This is not a job for fun or glory, however. They’re not seasoned criminals or even a wisecracking, rag-tag crew. There’s an excellent chance they will die, but they know if they don’t get the money, they’ll probably die anyway. Their path is extreme, to be sure, and the script from McQueen and Gillian Flynn does not shy away from that reality and the impact it has on their lives.
The most overt way women are controlled in this movie is through physical harm—Elizabeth Debicki‘s Alice is the victim of intimate partner violence by Florek and physical abuse from her mother. Others suspect she was too stupid to know what her boyfriend was up to or chose ignorance so she could continue leading what they saw as a life of leisure. However, she tells the other “widows” that when she asked questions, she was silenced with physical violence.
Widows reflects that financial abuse is an insidious form of intimate partner violence—damaging, isolating, and hard to recognize from the outside. Florek didn’t allow Alice to work, limiting her ability to interact with others or earn a wage so she could leave him. Michelle Rodriguez’s Linda, meanwhile, was shocked to find her business being repossessed by loan sharks after her partner’s death. This too is a form of betrayal and manipulation from a partner. Her husband conned her into letting him take the rent payments, in cash, and in return he destroyed her livelihood.
It takes much longer for Veronica (Viola Davis) to admit that she, in spite of all appearances, is just as broke as the rest of them after the men die. She doesn’t own a thing, not even her own home. This point is vital: No matter how put together a woman might look, how luxurious her life might seem, she could still be in danger. And none of the wealth matters if she doesn’t have anything in her own name. That Virginia Woolf was onto something after all.
Other women throughout the film struggle financially, and for the majority of the named women characters, the need for financial freedom is their primary drive throughout the film, occasionally competing with the need to stay alive. We watch Belle (Cynthia Erivo) come home, kiss her own children on the head, and immediately run out the door to take care of a stranger’s children because she needs the money. When Veronica questions her credibility, the number of jobs she works and how badly she needs the money are among her bonafides.
The women of Jack Mulligan’s small business program for black women in his ward are trotted out for political theater, but through Belle’s eyes we see the truth: Colin Farrell‘s Jack Mulligan is just a loan shark with a better pedigree. He can get away with it because these women have nowhere else to turn. No one else will lend to them, and they need the cash if they’re ever going to start their own businesses and change their prospects in life. Their financial need puts them not only in his literal debt but also casts them as pawns in his political games, regardless of how they might feel about the race for Alderman of Ward 18. Who knows, maybe one of these women could have shaken up the race had they not been so under Jack’s thumb?
It’s telling what these women do when they come into an extreme amount of money. No one builds a criminal empire or becomes Carrie Bradshaw—though let it be known, they all look damn good. Instead the women of Widows choose lifelong stability and a sense of justice. They build a legacy for their deceased son, help a friend get out from under Jack Mulligan’s predatory “small business” program, buy back their business, and create a life full of choices instead of violence. In short, they achieve true financial independence that no man can ever threaten again. These women don’t want a free pass; they want freedom.
No amount of wealth can protect you from violence, but sometimes it can help you escape it. For the women of Widows, a windfall is an opportunity for stability, independence, and justice, rather than excess. And after a life under the control of men who they thought loved them, the chance to live a life of their own choosing is worth the risk.