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‘Widows’ an engaging, atypical thriller

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What happens when an Academy Award-winning director teams up with a bestselling novelist-turned-screenwriter to make an unexpected and unconventional heist movie?

“Widows” happens.

Director Steve McQueen isn’t necessarily the guy you’d think of when it comes to gritty gangster noir fare, but this film – which he also co-wrote alongside “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn – is all that and more. It’s a tense thriller, yes, but it’s also a work of feminist empowerment. And oh yeah, it has something to say about the American political system as well.

It’s a beautifully-crafted film, aesthetically stylish and narratively surprising, featuring a peak-of-his-powers filmmaker assembling an incredibly talented ensemble to create a movie that, while hauntingly familiar in some respects, is still something you’ve never really seen before.

Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis, TV’s “How to Get Away with Murder”) is living a nice life in Chicago with her husband Harry (Liam Neeson, “The Commuter”). There are some relationship tensions between the two of them, but they still love each other very much.

But Veronica’s nice life is utterly upended when Harry dies. That’s when she learns that her husband was a criminal of some note; he died while trying to pull off a heist. Harry and his crew died in the process of stealing $2 million … and that debt has fallen to her.

Said debt is owed to Jamaal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry, “Hotel Artemis”), a local gangster looking to go “straight” by running for alderman in his district, his brother/enforcer Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya, “Black Panther”) a constant presence by his side. Manning’s opponent in the race is Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”), a legacy politician whose father Tom (Robert Duvall, “In Dubious Battle”) has run the district for decades … and given his son some semi-shady handouts along the way.

Manning wants his money. But Veronica’s wasn’t the only husband who died in that failed robbery. Soon, she finds herself connecting with her fellow widows – Linda (Michelle Rodriguez, “The Fate of the Furious”), who lost her retail shop thanks to her husband’s gambling problems, and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki, “The Cloverfield Paradox”), who is still dealing with the aftermath of her abusive relationship – in an effort to put things right before it is too late.

And with the help of her late husband’s notebook – a meticulous record of heists past and future alike – Veronica and the rest hope to pull off one big job. A job big enough to pay off their debt and set them up with something resembling a future. But a big job means a big target – perhaps bigger than this makeshift crew can handle.

There’s actually plenty more to “Widows” – its plotting is fairly intricate – but that’s enough for now.

Steve McQueen’s directorial talents are considerable, but seeing them turned toward a project like this offers some unexpected delights. You wouldn’t think that the languid pacing and lingering touch that are his hallmarks would work very well in a taut thriller setting, and yet, here we are. His gentleness doesn’t preclude firmness; it’s an odd marriage. The result is a film that often gives the impression of placidity while emotions and motivations churn violently just beneath the surface.

Also worth noting: the fact that “Widows” is able to move in so many different directions is impressive as hell. There’s the baseline heist plot, of course, but we also have the story of these women, long beholden to the men in their lives, taking command. Plus, there’s the whole political aspect, offering a surprisingly vivid look at the sausage-making unpleasantness of it all – nepotism, prejudices, entitlement, you name it. Somehow, McQueen and Flynn give each storyline its due; yes, we might want more from a given thread, but none of them are undercut or abandoned. And thanks to some intricate interweaving, they all matter – no easy feat.

Helping tell these stories is one of the more talented casts you’ll see in a movie this year. There’s tremendous talent up and down the roster here. Obviously, Viola Davis leads the way; she gives her usual incredible performance, dynamic and engaged. Few can scale such emotional heights while still remaining grounded – “Widows” is a much different (and worse) movie without her. Rodriguez is one of our more underrated talents; she’s quietly excellent here. Ditto Debicki, who proves more than capable of hanging with some heavyweights. Individually and as a group, this trio crushes just about every scene – it’s outstanding stuff. Davis is the leader, but everyone gets some shine.

On the men’s side, we get some great work out of Farrell, who is becoming an actor capable of rising to just about any challenge laid before him. Henry is stone cold as Jamaal, conveying the multitudes contained within a complex character with nuance and subtlety. Meanwhile, Kaluuya is the other side of the gangster coin, brutal and broad and relentless, possessed of a gleeful sociopathy. Duvall has lost his fastball, but McQueen deploys him perfectly – he’s a huge presence in limited scenes. And Neeson is Neeson, bringing his usual worn-down gruff charm to the occasional flashback.

“Widows” is a lot of things. A heist thriller built around empowering women and condemning the American political machine shouldn’t work, but this movie does. It’s an odd choice for someone like Steve McQueen, but it’s one that we should all be grateful he made.

[5 out of 5]

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