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Viola Davis and Cynthia Erivo in Widows.

Photo Credit: Merrick Morton/Twentieth Century Fox

  • Widows
  • Directed by Steve McQueen
  • Written by Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn
  • Starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo
  • Classification 14A
  • 129 minutes

rating

Of the many, many arresting shots in Widows, Steve McQueen’s ferocious interpretation of a heist film, none quite stick like a four-minute scene of a car driving through Chicago.

The moment is captured in a single take, the preferred device of modern auteurs with Serious Intentions, but it's not used here for any hey-look-at-me superficiality.

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It’s the middle of the film, and we’re watching white, affluent Chicago alderman Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) crassly debate the anatomy of black men with a campaign aide as they head from a grip-and-grin in the city’s South Side to his nearby mansion. Instead of showing the conversation inside the car, McQueen mounts his camera just over the vehicle’s tinted windshield, so for four minutes, we listen to the increasingly disgusting conversation from a disembodied and static position, the screen instead chronicling Chicago’s gradual but seamless geographical shift from urban poverty to well-manicured wealth in real time.

Like his other celebrated long takes in 12 Years a Slave (the attempted lynching of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s free-man-turned-slave), Shame (Michael Fassbender’s furious jog across New York City), and his feature debut Hunger (the 17½-minute dialogue between Michael Fassbender’s Bobby Sands and Liam Cunningham’s Belfast priest), McQueen is not employing a cinematic trick for trick’s sake. The director is focused on both pulling audiences inside his stories and having us recognize our role as spectator. In one four-minute stretch of Widows, the filmmaker urges viewers to wrestle with the fact we’re engaged with Mulligan’s filthy dialogue while also bearing witness to just how little black lives matter to the rest of the world.

It’s an expertly laid cinematic trap, and one that speaks to the larger push-pull excellence of Widows. This is a crime flick and a genuine crowd-pleaser at that, replete with twists and turns that will provoke audible gasps and bursts of applause. But McQueen, in collaboration with co-writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), is brilliantly toying with expectations, using genre as a Trojan horse for incendiary ideas about class, race, history and who can afford to rise about their station. In lesser hands, playing such a nakedly ambitious and dangerous game might be ham-fisted, bordering on offensive. But the combination of McQueen’s visual rigour and Flynn’s sharp-as-a-serrated-knife narrative instinct cements Widows as one of the greatest films of the year.

Very loosely based on Lynda La Plante’s British television series from the 1980s, Widows follows four women who recently lost their husbands – men who, it’s revealed in an explosive opening sequence that McQueen keeps looping back to, were thieves who stole from those even worse than themselves. To repay their husbands' debt, held over their heads by a South Side gangster (Brian Tyree Henry) with eyes on legitimizing his enterprise through the sheen of public office, the women must come together to pull off the one last job their spouses never got the chance to pursue.

Initially, the women want nothing to do with the scheme – or any life of crime that their “better” halves wallowed in. Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) has a dress shop to run and two kids to raise. Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) is struggling to find her place in a world that only values her body. Amanda (Carrie Coon) has a new baby to deal with and one very large secret. And Veronica (Viola Davis) is busy compartmentalizing her grief, having already lost a teenage son in an incident that recalls the tragedies of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Philando Castile and so many more.

Soon, though, Veronica’s hand is forced by various elements of Chicago’s patriarchy, including Mulligan and his old-guard father (Robert Duvall). Firearms are acquired (easy enough, in America), plans are hatched and a wild card (Cynthia Erivo as a struggling single mother) is recruited.

The story begs for a coarse comparison – like Set It Off meets Ocean’s 8 – but McQueen and Flynn are only mildly interested in the conventions and mechanics of heists. Through each of their title characters, the filmmakers viciously dissect life under the thumb of Big America. That is, what it’s like to exist if you’re not male, white, wealthy, connected – or all four. Every woman has her own story to tell here, with Veronica given the harshest spotlight. It’s clear she knew at least a little of how her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) made his living, and the fact that she still retains the services of his enforcer (Garret Dillahunt) speaks volumes. But McQueen, Flynn and most critically Davis give Veronica enough layers – of pain, betrayal, frustration, chilling determination – to absorb and confound audiences for days.

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There’s little doubt Davis gives the performance of the year here, topping her own towering work in Fences from just two years ago. And if Widows had only Davis to champion, it would be enough. Yet McQueen stacks his cast with the most impressive set of performers in recent memory, each eager to play their part with an intimidating level of perfection. Not just the women and men mentioned above, but also Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Lukas Haas, and Jon Bernthal, the latter of whom is an almost disgustingly good fit for his brief role.

The action is tremendous, the score by Hans Zimmer avoids all the worst of Zimmer's usual bombastic trappings, and Chicago has never been presented in such a gloriously complicated light.

But with all heist films, there’s a hitch: Widows arrives via 20th Century Fox, one of the last big Hollywood studios. Rarely today do such mainstream houses put the necessary resources and interest into such intelligent and daring work as this – a film that refuses to play by any blockbuster binaries or guarantee any return on investment.

The fact that Fox somehow managed to do so instead of, say, patching La Plante’s intellectual property onto a new X-Men film or something equally ridiculous, is a heartening bit of good news in an era that refuses to accommodate any such thing. Naturally, this is one of Fox’s last gasps of such fresh air before the studio will be absorbed into Disney’s corporate maw next year.

McQueen and Flynn’s ultimate message with Widows – that nothing comes for free in America – rings true, all over.

Widows opens Nov. 16.

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