Widows, Ocean’s 8, & How Women Do Heists
The latest Hollywood craze has been focused on reboots. There are updated versions of The Lion King, Mary Poppins, along with every superhero. Sometimes, though, a straightforward reboot isn’t enough. Sometimes some remixing is required. Such was the case in films like Ghostbusters and Ocean’s 8, where a largely male cast was replaced by a largely female one. There’s value in these kinds of remixes, but there’s even more value in more original stories that put women at the center. That’s part of what makes Widows, starring Viola Davis and Michelle Rodriguez, one of the best movies of the year.
Widows is a heist film at its core. It follows the widows of four criminals in the aftermath of a job that killed them all. These women decide to pick up where their husbands left off. Although Widows is based on a miniseries of the same name, it’s brimming with original ideas. The movie’s conceit is that this group of women is uniquely qualified to pull off a heist because of their femininity. Because no one expects them to commit a crime, they’re able to get away with it.
Ocean’s 8 and Widows Start With the Same Premise
Ocean’s 8 operates largely on the same idea. The previous Ocean’s movies were focused on men pulling off elaborate heists, and Ocean’s 8 takes the same premise and applies it to women. The fact that women are conducting the heist makes the subtleties of their plan different. They can be more deceptive. They hide in plain sight.
Ocean’s 8 is not a bad movie. In many ways, it feels like a functional sequel to the Ocean’s movies that came before it. Its problems stem largely from the fact that it doesn’t work harder to tell a unique story. Ocean’s 8 has a cast that’s bursting with talent. At every turn, though, it seems to be content to simply act its premise and get out without making anyone mad.
With Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett in the starring roles, Ocean’s 8 could have been much more complex than it ultimately was. Ocean’s 8 could have examined what led all these women to this moment. Instead, it mostly exists on the surface.
Widows is About the Lives of its Female Protagonists
The heist in Ocean’s 8 is certainly thrilling, but it pales in comparison with the climax of Widows. Ocean’s 8’s heist is elaborate, but the heist in Widows feels much more true to real lives. These women are scared. Things go less smoothly.
It might be unfair to compare these two movies. Other than their central idea — women conducting heists — they don’t have much in common. Widows works as hard as possible to remain visceral and grounded. Ocean’s 8 is light and airy by design.
Tone is not the only thing that separates these two movies, though. Widows doesn’t foreground its heist in the same way that any of the Ocean’s movies do. In the Ocean’s movies, the heist is the point. The characters may be colorful and three-dimensional, but they aren’t the reason you’re in the theater. You’re there to see the intricacies of the crime as it’s committed. Heist movies are thrilling because of their ability to design an intricate caper. Widows, on the other hand, remains firmly grounded in its characters.
As a result, the heist exists more as an extension of their grief and confusion. These women have lost their husbands and their lives are in shambles. Each of them involves themselves in the heist to prove something, and absolve some debt, of course.
Widows is Isn’t Above its Genre
It would be easy to describe Widows as a movie that transcends its genre. That argument would suggest that films like Ocean’s 8 are all we can expect from heist films. Some may even be tempted to say, at this point, that Widows and Ocean’s 8 don’t even exist in the same genre. That’s not really true, though, either.
Instead, Widows is just an excellent example of one way to make a great heist movie. It’s still focused on the intricacies of conducting a heist, but those intricacies are different than the ones foregrounded in the Ocean’s films. Widows is the kind of movie where the women have to figure out how to buy guns and read blueprints.
Widows mixes those elements with an interest in the inner workings of Chicago, where the movie is set. As much as Widows is about its heist, it’s also about race and class, and the way women deal with their husband’s ambitions.
The Feminism of Widows
It’s worth noting at this point that both Widows and Ocean’s 8 were directed by men. That’s not to say it’s not great to have female representation in front of the camera — undeniably, it is — especially diverse representation as we see in these films. But it’s also worth considering how each of these movies might be different if there had been more women behind the camera as well.
Still, Widows is first and foremost about its female characters. It’s a movie that’s interested in their grief, and in the ways that they’ve been abused or taken advantage of. The miracle of the movie is that it’s capable of being about those characters even as it juggles issues of race and class. It serves as a reminder that all of those things are inextricably linked. It’s more foolhardy to discuss them separately than it would be to join them together.
In Widows and Ocean’s 8, we have two very different examples of a very similar conceit. Widows is much more ambitious thematically than Ocean’s 8, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a better movie. Widows is better because it’s perfectly executed, and Ocean’s 8 is much too willing to play it safe.
Still, both movies have value. We should want heist movies about women that come in all shapes and sizes. We should also pray that when they come, they are as thoughtful as Widows.