3:00 pm EDT, December 5, 2018

‘Ocean’s 8,’ ‘Widows,’ and the art of the female-led heist film

Widows and Ocean’s 8 both center on impressive heists carried out by teams of all-female thieves. Take a look at how these movies compare through what they share and how they differ.

The heist genre is one of my personal favorites, one defined by its stylish thrill, ingenious plot twists, and larger-than-life characters. Movies like Ocean’s Eleven, The Usual Suspects, and Heat embody these characteristics, making them pillars of the genre that are still fantastically enjoyable to watch years after they were first released.

With that said, these movies are also defined by one of the worst trappings of the genre: An undeniable preference for and dominance of stories that revolve around men and men only. So many of the best, and especially the worst, movies of the genre put women in the backseat, treating them as supplemental characters. Supposing the films even have a woman, they’re typically kept at an arms distance from the heist itself.

There are some great exceptions to this, of course. F. Gary Gray’s 1996 movie Set It Off stars Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Vivica Fox, and Kimberly Elis as a group of best friends that team up to rob a few banks. Not for fun, however; each woman is uniquely motivated by her own needs; their individual stories form a composite that emphasizes the cycles of poverty and financial burden that are a reality for so many.

In short, the movie deals with the socio-political machinations that keep money out of the hands of those that need it most. While this is a far cry from the sort of carefree and fun heist films more commonly associated with the genre, Set It Off is arguably the pioneer of the female-led heist film.

Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown also falls under this label. Released a year later in 1997 starring Pam Grier, Jackie Brown is an underrated gem in Tarantino’s career. The film, a far more understated and nuanced movie than we’ve come to expect from Tarantino, follows a flight attendant who gets caught smuggling money across international borders.

When the police try to use her to get to her boss, she devises a plan to play both sides against each other. While a less straight forward heist, film delivers ten-fold on style and heart even if the titular Jackie Brown is one of the only women in the movie.

Other movies like Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring and Harmony Korin’s Spring Breakers feature groups of young women who rob and steal, but these groups are neither as organized nor as skilled as the thieves in a prototypical heist flick. While these movies hardly fit the mold of the more traditional heist genre, they are a compelling inversion of the familiar that deserve credit.

That brings us to 2018, the year two major Hollywood studios released female-led heist films. Widows and Ocean’s 8, two dramatically different movies, share this very specific commonality making a comparison between the two movies ripe for analysis.

From director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), Widows follows the lives of three widows after their husbands are killed in a heist gone wrong. A man involved with the husbands’ heist holds their wives accountable for delivering the money, pushing them to extremes none of them could have anticipated.

Led by Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett, Ocean’s 8 follows a group of uniquely skilled women who come together in hopes of stealing a highly valuable set of diamonds off one celebrity’s neck at the annual Met Gala. Sound impossible? Ocean’s 8 proves otherwise.

Aside from the fact that they are both female-led heist films, Ocean’s 8 and Widows could not be more different, but that makes them a fascinating pair to look at side-by-side. We break down the biggest differences and similarities between these two movies below!

High risk versus low stakes

The vast majority of the differences between these two unique female-led heist films boil down to the dramatic stakes and conflicts embedded within the narrative. The crux of the issue is this: Whereas Widows is packed full with complex dramatic stakes, Ocean’s 8 is almost entirely devoid of them. Neither of these qualities inherently makes for a good or bad movie, but they are fundamental in order to understand what separates these two movies.

From the very beginning of Ocean’s 8, things go entirely according to plan for our team of thieves. Even in the very first scene as we see Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock) in her probation hearing, there’s a sense of things going according to a plan, even when we don’t know what the plan is. This is where Ocean’s 8 derives its distinct pleasures; for much of the movie, the audience is kept half in the dark, allowing for the movie to delight and surprise as we watch these characters do their thing. Sure, there are a few bumps in the road to them achieving their goal, but nothing bad enough happens to derail their work.

Ocean’s 8 is a relatively conflict free movie that allows the audience to revel in the joy of seeing a team of highly skilled, funny, and intelligent women get away with the impossible. They are motivated by little more than the money they stand to gain.

This is drastically different from Widows, a movie that introduces conflict after conflict until its blue in the face. Not only do the widows face a collective threat from the men their dead husbands owe money to, but they all have their own individual conflicts to answer to. The movie also layers a hotly contested local political campaign ontop of the widows’ story, amping up the level of conflict.

Unlike Ocean’s 8, the threat of injury and death loom heavily over the heist in Widows. One of these movies features a heist born from necessity, while the other is just for the fun of it; this difference shapes the very tone of the movies. You would likely not compare these two if they weren’t both female-led heist films. Aside from a shared plot device, they are totally different movies separated most significantly by the level of dramatic conflict in the story.

Opposing styles

The presence or lack of dramatic stakes informs the next major difference in these two female-led heist films: their visual styles.

If you’re familiar with director Steve McQueen’s previous movies, you know that he takes things seriously. Movies like 12 Years a Slave, Shame, and Hunger are serious dramas that deal with slavery, sex addiction, and hunger strikes. McQueen’s style consistently fits the subject matter, presenting a dark visual palette and a solemn and serious visual style.

Widows is no exception. McQueen affords his characters no room for fun or pleasure. Instead, every scene is meant to reinforce the transactional nature of their lives as a way of reinforcing their motivations for carrying out the heist. The movie presents each character in a way that commands respect, even if they are not afforded the same thing in the story itself. The dramatic stakes are high, therefore McQueen expects things to be taken seriously – almost too seriously. Long slow takes, a dour color scheme, slow revolving camera movements, abrupt editing, and staged blocking all work to reinforce the hyper-serious style of the movie.

This is in total contrast to Ocean’s 8, a movie that plays with its characters and the audience in equal measure. Unlike McQueen’s film, shot and edited to reinforce the solemnity of the story, Ocean’s 8 wants to have a good time. It helps that the movie is set at one of the biggest parties of the year: the Met Gala.

At every turn, Ocean’s 8 boasts glamour and style. Led by Cate Blanchett and Sandra Bullock, the team is made up of familiar faces like Rihanna, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, and more. These actresses are given the freedom to crack jokes, show off their talents, and strut their way through one of the most prestigious events in New York City and the world. Naturally, the visual style rises to match this playful attitude.

Messages of empowerment

Finally, it’s impossible to talk about these two movies without talking about how they operate as stories of empowerment. At a time when inequality – across race, gender, and class – is at the top of everyone’s mind, both Widows and Ocean’s 8 appear keenly aware of how their stories function as messages of empowerment for the audience. Here, we begin to find some common ground between the two movies despite their differences.

Both movies appear – in the marketing, in the trailers – to be an exciting take on a familiar genre. They seem to understand that while we’ve seen movies like this before, we’ve rarely seen them with casts like this. That two major Hollywood movies released this year feature a crew of women pulling off the impossible is no coincidence; it’s undoubtedly tactical move to address shifting cultural tides.

However, putting aside this baseline, arguably superficial level of empowerment, it’s important to not discount the power and impact these movies can have. Movies like this help to change, even incrementally, the way we conceptualize and understand gender roles in popular film. For decades, the heist genre has been dominated by male stories, voices, and gazes. Over time, this conditions both audiences and creators alike to believe that women don’t belong in this genre.

Movies like Ocean’s 8 and Widows work against that conditioning. Regardless of their quality, these movies offer us images that directly contradict what’s been accepted as canon. Movies like this show older generations of moviegoers that genres can and should change, while showing younger generations that they deserve better representation than what they’ve been given in the past.

While their methods and styles may be different, Ocean’s 8 and Widows make for a fascinating pair of female-led heist films. Despite their shared plot devices, they could not be more different proving that the heist genre still has a few more tricks up its sleeve.

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