Review: Widows Raises the Bar for Modern Screenwriting

A spoiler-free take on the genius of collaborative storytelling.


No writer can authentically create the heart, mind and soul of a character whose experience they cannot relate with. One can come very close, but there are nuances that get missed; “tells” that register with the audience, even subconsciously. 

That’s what makes the co-screenwriting team of writer-director Steve McQueen and writer Gillian Flynn pop in Widows. Each brings their own experiences to the table, infusing the storytelling with the authentic African-American and female perspectives missing in so many similar thriller screenplays. Gone are any distracting stereotypes, cliches, or false moments, leaving room for breathtaking storytelling that feels new and raw, but should have arrived decades ago.

Part of Viola Davis’ brilliance as lead character Veronica Rawlins is a direct result of the screenwriting collaboration between McQueen and Flynn. Underestimated, gritty and real, Rawlins joins the pantheon of flawed Flynn anti-heroines established in previous works Gone Girl, Dark Places and Sharp Objects. Unlike those characters, Rawlins is a black woman, and Flynn defers to McQueen in portraying aspects of Rawlins that a white writer could not get right. Rawlins’ reactions to events that mirror the modern reality of the black experience — from casual or blatant racism to police brutality — are rendered powerfully authentic by McQueen’s penning. 

It’s also increasingly rare to see a film in which the screenwriting is so focused, to the point that every syllable matters. Widows does not hold its audience’s hand; if you’re not paying attention, you’re left behind. Clever foreshadowing sets up subtle reveals that will be entirely missed by distracted audience members. 

Photos from Warner Bros.

Photos from Warner Bros.

In what feels like a conscious choice, Widows almost entirely avoids showcasing digital devices or their screens. It’s a huge departure from similar modern thrillers, many of which rely on digital technology for their very premise, or overlay text message conversation bubbles on screen. In the one or two times a computer screen is shown, there is as little motion as possible on screen, making a Google Map feel like a paper counterpart. When characters in Widows text, you rely on the actors’ reactions to the sent and received messages to get the gist of what’s said. 

Analog technology is peppered throughout. Grieving, Rawlins drops the needle on a vinyl record. Weapons or pyrotechnics used by the cast are analog; no cheesy digital thriller tropes. This authentic, back-to-basics feeling is refreshing in a film set in modern day. Indeed, authenticity is what gives Widows its edge and its power, and hopefully what sets it apart in the sure-to-be-competitive upcoming awards season. 

5/5 stars 

Widows opens in wide release Friday, November 16.

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