Steve McQueen might sound like a weird choice to direct a heist movie. The director of “12 Years a Slave” has a background as a visual artist as shown in his first three feature films. They’re all serious, sober movies about harsh topics like sex addiction and slavery. McQueen’s latest film “Widows” is a rousing success. The heist movie written with “Gone Girl” and “Sharp Objects” writer Gillian Flynn, was adapted from the 1983 British TV series of the same name; it is a tense, skillfully directed thriller that doesn’t skimp on big ideas. Following four women of various backgrounds, it stakes its claim as the most intersectional Hollywood movie of the year.
In the first of many excellent choices, McQueen cuts between the robbery gone wrong and the introduction of the widows: Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis), whose husband Harry (Liam Neeson) is the ring leader; Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez), a clothing store owner who finds herself on the verge of losing her store; and Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki), an abused wife who is pushed into being an escort by her mother. Along with them, we are also introduced to the election between Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) — the son of a corrupt Chicago politician — and Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) — a gang leader branching into politics. The two threads combine when it turns out that Harry stole $2 million from Jamal, who wants it back. Veronica turns to Harry’s leftover plans, enlisting the other widows in her plan with the promise of changing their lives for the better, all while Manning’s enforcer brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), lurks behind them.
There’s a lot of plot in the film, but it never manages to feel overstuffed even with a two hour watch time. McQueen and Flynn skillfully navigate the numerous plot threads, spicing it up with the signature wit similar to “Gone Girl.” Davis is steely perfection as the leader of the group; she tells the widows repeatedly that after this heist, they will never see each other again. Sometimes, she acts downright cruel. She portrays the desperation and drive of a woman conscious of the dangers to her life, while McQueen suggests she’s fighting to keep the upper class lifestyle she now lives. Out of the three, Debicki has been getting lots of attention, and for good reason: she starts the film off as a wounded, timid girl before gathering strength and taking her life into her own hands. Not to mention, she has some of the funnier moments in the film. Rodriguez shouldn’t be ignored though; her performance is a wonderful turn from her past role in the “Fast and Furious” movies. She is grounded in realism and pushing back against Veronica. The male cast members are no slouches either. Kaluuya seems to have a lot of fun in his role as the violent enforcer who also enjoys a podcast now and then.
Tying it all together is McQueen’s command of the camera. The opening sequence uses the jarring edits to create great effects, which is shown by throwing us from peaceful situations back into the robbery. Additionally, he makes the best shot of the year by juxtaposing background images with a limo traveling from a poorer neighborhood into more gentrified areas. McQueen never leans on his themes but instead allows them to come about naturally and organically throughout the film. The result is the rare blockbuster that’s as thrilling as it is thought-provoking, which is bolstered by the diverse talent in front of and behind the camera. “Widows” should not be missed.