Steve McQueen brings his deft hand to the heist genre with the thrilling, razor-sharp Widows

Viola Davis | 20th Century Fox

Viola Davis | 20th Century Fox

If you had to pick a new genre for writer-director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) to tackle, crime drama wouldn’t seem too far outside of his normal purview. After all, he has a penchant for morally complex characters, and some of the most acclaimed roles of the last few decades have come in the form of tortured gangsters, killers, and dirty public officials. But a heist film? You might think that seems a bit too safe for him, the sort of popcorn fare that would inhibit one of the most interesting filmmakers working today from turning in the innovative work that allowed him to quickly make a name for himself in the industry.

You’d be dead wrong. Rather than settle for a by-the-numbers thriller, McQueen has teamed with Gone Girl and Sharp Objects novelist/screenwriter Gillian Flynn to craft a deeply intelligent, wildly entertaining epic that uses its deliciously pulpy premise to not only provide crowd-pleasing escapism but also some of the most cutting social commentary you’ll see in a blockbuster this year.

Loosely based on the 80s British TV drama of the same name, McQueen’s Widows shifts the setting to a corrupt Chicago, where Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis, Doubt) is reeling from the death of her robber husband Harry (Liam Neeson, Taken) and his crew in a job gone wrong. Matters are further complicated when Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry, Atlanta), a local crime boss, reveals his money was stolen in Harry’s fateful heist and he’s expecting Veronica to get it back for him. He needs the cash fast as he’s running for alderman of his local precinct, facing off against the rich, snobby Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell, The Lobster), son of longtime incumbent Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall, The Godfather). Armed with plans left behind by Harry and with no where else to turn, Veronica decides to pull off her own heist to get the money back. However, she needs a crew, so she turns to the only people she deems capable of pulling the job off: her fellow widows . She manages to recruit Alice (Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gatsby) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez, the Fast & Furious franchise), as both need the money and are convinced by Veronica that Manning will come for them as well if they do not participate in the heist. The remaining widow Amanda (Carrie Coon, Gone Girl) fails to show up to their initial meeting, so Linda convinces Veronica to include her babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo, Bad Times at the El Royale) as their driver and they’re off to the races.

This is a stacked, legendary ensemble, but it’s really Davis’s show, and she clearly revels in the command. Vernoica, emotionally vulnerable in private but steely and blunt as the crew’s leader, is the sort of role Davis seems born to play. Davis chews the scenery in every frame she’s in, equal parts sympathetic and intimidating. If the film is deemed predictable, chalk it up to knowing from Davis’s performance that this is a woman this film’s villains should not have crossed, a bad-ass action heroine given layers and humanity by arguably the greatest actress of the modern era. Davis is so good that it’s remarkable anybody else emerges as notable in this thing, but the cast here is too talented to be forgotten. Debicki continues her quiet rise to stardom as Alice, whose newfound resolve in the face of the death of her abusive husband Florek (Jon Bernthal, Sicario) allows Debicki to bring out a tenacity that elevates the role from a one-note mob-wife stereotype into something genuine. Rodriguez, who usually feels a bit held back in her roles by less gutsy directors, gives an intelligent, raw performance as Linda, playing the part as if she’s every bit as determined to prove to herself that’s she’s strong as she is in her quest to provide a future for her children. Erivo’s role as Belle isn’t quite what the film’s marketing would have you believe, but she stands out in a fierce performance as the only crew member willing to stand up to Veronica’s stern nature. She matches Davis at every turn, forcing a mutual respect between their characters that only strengthens the complexity of the group’s dynamic.

Daniel Kaluuya and Brian Tyree Henry | 20th Century Fox

Daniel Kaluuya and Brian Tyree Henry | 20th Century Fox

The men aren’t half bad, either. Henry makes for a convincingly terrifying gang leader, a man determined to undermine the decades of racist policing and political grandstanding that has affected his neighborhood and claim power for his own. Henry sells you on his contrasting layers, making him menacing and sympathetic, manipulative and ambitious. Farrell and Duvall are suitably detestable, playing off one another like two sides of the same Fox News-inspired coin. Farrell’s Jack is whiny, prejudiced, and dismissive of the inhabitants of the precinct over which he’s vying for control, resenting the fact he has to run for office in an area where “these people are killing are each other.” Duvall’s Trumpian patriarch makes it clear Jack’s racism was passed down like a disease, dropping racial slurs and exuding toxic masculinity like a plantation dinosaur. While all three of these performances are effectively chilling, it’s Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) who gives the film its twisted heart as Jamal’s psychotic brother and enforcer Jatemme. Kaluuya is downright unnerving in the role, playing Jatemme as a remorseless and determined killer who almost single-handedly brings to life the dangerous stakes the titular widows face if they fail. It’s perhaps illustrated best in one agonizing sequence where Jatemme forces the subordinates who lost Jamal’s money to freestyle rap as McQueen’s camera swirls them like they’re on a merry-go-round. He plays along, inches from their faces as he stares them down before he executes them with so little thought that the audience quickly realizes killing comes to him as easily as breathing. All the while, Kaluuya makes it feel jarringly real, never blinking as his character carries out increasingly haunting acts of violence. It’s a performance that yet again proves Kaluuya’s recent rise to success is no fluke.

For all the startling power of the performances, McQueen and company are there to meet them every step of the way with a script and directing so smart it embarrasses an entire genre in the process. Sure, there’s plenty of soap to be found in the film’s twists and turns, but it’s elevated by an awareness of the context surrounding the ideas of a heist film. There’s the class struggle that seems inherent to these sorts of films, as heists have played as metaphors for economic inequality since the days of Robin Hood. McQueen and Flynn’s script gives it startling modern relevance, shading these ideas with explorations of police brutality, institutionalized racism, and righteous feminist rage. It helps that the camerawork from McQueen and his cinematographer/frequent collaborator Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave) is utilized in ways that give the script’s social mindfulness imagery that drives home its messages. One scene, shot entirely from the exterior of a car, features a conversation between Farrell’s Mulligan and an aide that you don’t even see. The camera instead lingers on the surrounding neighborhood, and over the course of a two minute drive we see the city evolve from impoverished projects to glitzy, gentrified suburbs. It’s a quietly flooring sequence which highlights not only McQueen’s eye for not only impactful framing, but also for the implicit meaning we gather from those images. He also proves himself as an apt action director, shooting the heist set-pieces with an urgency that heightens their intensity without devolving into the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it pacing that plagues so many lesser works.

Widows, to be frank, rules. It’s the definition of that old phrase “edge-of-your-seat thriller”, given new life by top-to-bottom stellar performances, a rich script, and masterful work behind the camera. It dares studio filmmaking to rise to its level, to provide not just popcorn thrills but to color them with intelligence and vigor. When Davis sneers to her crew that their greatest asset is that “nobody believes they have the balls to pull this off”, it feels like the entire cast and crew is directing that energy at Hollywood bankrollers, spitting in the face of the idea that a film can’t be fun if it’s also smart.

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Ryan Ninesling