Back in 2013 writer-director Steve McQueen stunned audiences with his searing and brutal 12 Years a Slave, and the filmmaker has been a coveted and sought-after artist ever since. McQueen has been laying low but he’s finally returned to cinemas with an arthouse heist flick. On the surface this is a departure from the beautiful but grim work he’s released in the past. At the same time, this is an opportunity to add his stamp to a genre film. Widows, McQueen’s latest that sports a litany of acting talent, is a heist film with roots deep within the arthouse community.

Starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Jon Bernthal, Carrie Coon, Jackie Weaver and Liam Neeson, Widows is an intense drama that (as already mentioned) boasts a sprawling and impressive cast. Moreover, Widows is co-written by McQueen and Gone Girl and Sharp Objects scribe Gillian Flynn. All of this adds up to a fantastic feature that should top many year-end top ten lists.

After their husbands are killed in a robbery gone horribly wrong, a group of widows are forced to pay back the man their husbands stole from by themselves pulling a heist. The widows are led by Veronica Rawlings (Davis), a Chicago teacher’s union delegate whose husband, Harry (Neeson), was a very good and well-known thief. Faced with a grim future at the hands of Jamal Manning (Henry), a crime boss who’s transitioning into politics, Veronica recruits other widows Linda Perelli (Rodriguez), Alice Gunner (Debicki), and Linda’s babysitter Belle (Erivo). Veronica plans a heist based on plans she discovered in Harry’s notebook, a notebook which details every heist he’s pulled (and planned to pull). The widows have nearly no experience as criminals, so they need to prepare and train more diligently, especially since their lives are at stake. Complicating matters is Jack Mulligan (Farrell), a local politician running against Jamal who knows Harry from back in the day, and Jatemme Manning (an impressive Kaluuya), a mob enforcer and Jamal’s terrifying brother.

I cannot stress how impressive McQueen’s latest is. This is a carefully crafted, well-written, well-acted and beautifully shot drama that’s equal parts exciting and intense. McQueen provides viewers perspectives and lives that are all too real and harrowing, and he posits them into a situation that’s complicated and out of character for normal hard-working citizens, yet is still realistic enough to seem plausible. McQueen, through impressive camera work, is able highlight both poverty and opulence, sometimes in the same shot. And it’s his dealing with the criminals and those who can’t avoid those criminals that make Widows such a daring drama.

Since it shares similar themes, Widows is the brooding, all-too-serious sister to last summer’s Ocean’s 8. Ocean’s 8 is fun and breezy and, through Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and company, make being a thief seem glamorous and appealing. Widows, in stark contrast, reminds us that being a criminal is neither glamorous nor appealing, and its motivations are usually out of necessity and survival. McQueen has always done a great job of depicting everyday people in dire situations, and Widows is no different. This entry, though, is more accessible than McQueen’s previous work and he should be recognized for making a potential crowd-pleaser that doesn’t sacrifice quality or artistic merit.

If performances are what you’re seeking, Widows has a myriad of them. Oscar winner Davis, whose already known and respected due to her immense talent, is amazing as Veronica. Davis copes with pain and loss by hiding behind a calm, organized (and, at times, belligerent) demeanor. It’s a façade, but one that’s necessary because, as she puts it to Alice, “We have a lot of work to do. Crying isn’t on the list.” Speaking of which, Debicki is equally impressive as Alice goes through the film’s biggest metamorphosis. At 6’3’, Debicki towers over everyone. Being that tall normally gives off an air of superiority over those around her, but Alice is the most fragile character in Widows. Even Rodriguez flexes her acting muscles since personally I didn’t see much in her outside of being a tough-talking gearhead in The Fast and the Furious series.

Since it’s based on a British television series, McQueen can’t possibly squeeze twelve 50-minute episodes into 129 minutes. But McQueen successfully crams in many themes that audiences can not only relate to but endear themselves to. Also, knowing Widows is female-led and female-driven only adds to the notion women can carry a film, and surprisingly there’s just a tad bit of humor to prevent things from getting too serious.

Widows is one of the year’s best films and further solidifies Steve McQueen’s talent as a director. I hope this will catch on with audiences because it has plenty to say and it’s entertaining, too.

4.5 starts out of 5

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