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Review: McQueen's 'Widows' slyly subverts the heist flick

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

Widows’ opening scenes play like the final 10 minutes of a traditional heist movie: An experienced team of thieves improvises a crash course away from a plan gone wrong. The elusive big score begets bullet-riddled comeuppance. Cue the orchestra. But wait, there’s more.

The story keeps going after the credits usually start rolling. The dead crew leaves behind families to suffer the consequences. A gangster (Brian Tyree Henry) with political ambitions visits Veronica (Viola Davis), the wife of dead ringleader Harry (Liam Neeson), to let her know he expects her to repay the two million dollars her husband stole. Veronica is posh, proud, and cash poor. Her only major asset is a notebook her husband left behind cataloguing the details of the last job and the plans for the next one. To gain her independence, she’ll recruit her fellow widows to pull off their late husbands’ final caper.

Widows is a deconstructed heist flick that bends a familiar structure around a slew of disparate themes and subplots. Veronica still goes through the usual beats: She recruits her mismatched partners (a struggling single mom played by Michelle Rodriguez and a victimized second-generation immigrant played by Elizabeth Debicki), she troubleshoots a convoluted scheme, they secure weapons and supplies and a speedy getaway driver (Cynthia Erivo). But the film is at least as interested in the struggles that led these women to steal as it is in the mechanics of the robbery itself.

Widows packs an astonishing amount of story into just over two hours. Despite the brisk pace, it pauses to consider income inequality, police brutality, racial politics, gender politics, and regular old politicspolitics. A diversion about the getaway driver’s day job at a salon and the backdrop of an alderman’s race between Tyree Henry’s gangster and a southside Chicago legacy politician (Colin Farrell) eventually intertwine. And that’s not even mentioning Robert Duvall’s doddering racist patriarch, Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya as a sadistic enforcer, or Garret Dillahunt’s bit part as an addled NFL star-turned-chauffeur. There’s a lot going on here.

Almost too much, which makes sense given that the film is based on a British TV series by Prime Suspect creator Lynda La Plante. Ace novelist Gillian Flynn has significantly reimagined the story in an American setting, and she manages to keep the intricate plot threads untangled while providing her signature acid dialogue.

This is director Steve McQueen’s follow-up to 2014’s Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave. It’s a treat to see him put his finearts background to work on a slick, smart thriller for grownups. (In this sense it’s reminiscent of—and superior to—fashion designer Tom Ford’s compelling 2016 mystery Nocturnal Animals.) McQueen’s films have heretofore been terrific but taxing. Widows isn’t a trifle, but the thoughtful riff on Hollywood tropes permits the viewer to fully enjoy the beauty of McQueen’s stark but glossy aesthetic.

Widows constantly defies the conventions it feigns to work within. Even when the potboiler plot tilts toward melodrama, it remains a beautifully executed showcase for Davis’ pure, perfect badassery. She’s a celestial force who captures cameras and co-stars in her orbit, and whose gravity presses the audience back into their seats.