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Oscar-winning Steve McQueen’s jagged-edged thriller follows a high-stakes heist set in South Side Chicago — but doesn’t follow the genre’s conventions.


Viola Davis (left) as Veronica and Cynthia Erivo as Belle // Photo Credit: Merrick Morton / Twentieth Century Fox

Steve McQueen, the academy award-winning director of 12 Years a Slave — as well as Hunger and Shame — is a formalist to the core. Within precisely composed frames, his actors are given space to live and breathe in. He provides color, scale and scope (whether historically epic or painfully intimate) that lay bare the flaws of the human condition.

In Widows, it could be argued that cynicism is all that remains after hope has died.

Just ask Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis), the wife of Harry (Liam Neeson). Early on in the film the couple engages in blissfully fiery lovemaking. The playfully daring scene shifts from their starkly white bed to an explosive police shootout that leaves Harry and his crew of smooth criminals dead. In the wake of their deaths are four widows.

Set in Chicago, it turns out that when Harry wasn’t in the loving embrace of his wife, he was a well-known tactical genius in the heist game that no one dared move against.

With Harry gone in a hail of bullets and an operatic fireball, Veronica loses whatever protection his reputation may have afforded her. She finds that the Windy City is a cold place; seemingly, without anyone willing to come to her aid, there is no haven to escape the chill.

Jamal Manning — who is running for city alderman — is a hustler trying to trade the streets for a shot at real power, despite a willingness to rely on the strong arm of his ruthless brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya). The target of Harry’s heist, Jamal’s money is up in flames. He finds himself in desperate need of cash to front his political aspirations. Running against him is Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the son of an old-school — and very wealthy — politician (Robert Duvall) with a black heart far dirtier than his richly stained hands.

But Veronica finds a way to deal with the debt left by her husband — by continuing the heist on her own, joined by the three other widows. It might seem silly to think that she and the widows of Harry’s crew could join forces and pull a job off, but McQueen and co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn (adapting a British series based on the work of Lynda La Plante) reject the rote mechanics of the genre, almost as if they weren’t working within the formula in the first place.

Instead, Widows is a jagged-edged thriller with sharp cuts on politics, class, glass ceilings and race. In these layers, everyone recognizes just how rigged the system is, so there’s no use in fighting fair. Each character goes for broke, which inspires the actors as well — sometimes offering a bounty of revelations in a single scene.

Davis is the main attraction and, much like McQueen, she exceeds expectations. It’s fascinating to consider that maybe she doesn’t care so much about what the audience wants; rather, she’s performing for herself like a long-distance runner. Alone and ahead of the pack, she chases her own personal best. But this raises the stakes across the board.

Oscar-nominated Kaluuya (Get Out) is the boogeyman of adult nightmares. This is a far more impressive turn than his wide-eyed yet cautious work in Jordan Peele’s social thriller, because it unearths the darkest parts of his soul. Michelle Rodriguez is faster and far more furious than she’s ever been; as one of the widows recruited by Veronica, she has insider stock in the game. Utilizing her steely voice and gaze, she makes the viewer understand that she has something to lose.

This isn’t women’s work. That’s part of the narrative here. Women with no options should end up like Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), the gangly widow who endured the senseless attacks of her abusive husband and then became an escort because her mother (Jackie Weaver) browbeats her into believing that she has no other options. Exploit your looks while you can, right? It is a miracle that she finds her own way, and Debicki makes sure that we appreciate every step.

As the band The Police once sang, “When the world is running down, you make the best of what’s still around.” That message resounds in Widows, which is steeped in cynicism at its very best. (In theaters) Rated R. Grade: A