“Hunger,” “Shame” and “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen brings his interests in social justice and extreme means to a genre format in “Widows,” a heist thriller that’s fun and fairly filling.
Adapting a 1980s British TV series, McQueen and cowriter Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) reset the story in contemporary Chicago and combine prestige filmmaking with pulpy crime drama.
Viola Davis plays Veronica, a teachers’-union administrator married to well-off criminal Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson). In an opening passage, McQueen vigorously cuts from Veronica and Harry kissing to a botched-heist-related explosion that leaves Veronica grieving.
Veronica learns from criminal-turned-politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) that Harry owed him $2 million. That debt is now Veronica’s responsibility, Jamal says, clutching her little dog menacingly. Failure to pay will result in a visit from Jamal’s murderously crazed brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya).
Finding hope in a notebook that contains Harry’s old robbery plans, Veronica decides to finish a job Harry and his crew started. Transforming into a badass, she forms a team with financially strapped widows whose husbands died in the explosion. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) has lost her dress shop. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), heeding the distressing advice of her mother (Jacki Weaver), has become an escort.
Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a no-nonsense hairdresser, comes aboard as the getaway driver.
“No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off,” Veronica says, proving such doubters wrong.
Entwined with the heist plot are political campaigns, each with shady alderman candidate. The above-mentioned Jamal is running for office, as is Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), son of racist, anti-immigrant, political-dynasty boss Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall).
Lacking the depth, resonance and significance of McQueen’s earlier films, “Widows” has ridiculous moments, training-session lines like “Crying isn’t on the list!” and a revenge element that’s more obligatory than satisfying.
Still, it’s McQueen’s most entertaining and warm-tempered film yet, and as a genre picture, it delivers.
Spiking the story with issues of class, race, gender divides, corruption, police brutality and old-guard exclusivity, McQueen creates relevant social texture. Sometimes, the movie brings to mind the big-city corruption dramas of Sidney Lumet or the urban tapestries of John Sayles or Robert Altman.
McQueen juggles numerous characters nimbly, employs flashbacks efficiently and uses camera work to splendid effect. When Jack is riding in a car with an associate, McQueen focuses not on their conversation, but on the changing sights of the economically disparate neighborhoods they pass.
Transcending the screenplay, Davis powerfully anchors the film, taking Veronica from grieving and being haunted to anger and formidability and showing Veronica’s complex emotions and evolving feelings about Harry.
Debicki, meanwhile, is a delight as Alice, who, having lacked confidence, realizes her capabilities.
As for the baddies, Duvall is the toxic loudmouth we want him to be, and Kaluuya, the decent protagonist in “Get Out,” is chilling as a psychopathic henchman.
Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo
Written by: Gillian Flynn, Steve McQueen
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes