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Film preview: 'Widows'

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With his films "Hunger," "Shame," and "12 Years a Slave," Steve McQueen has made a name for himself directing stories which inject a searing intensity and immediacy to what could be sedate prestige dramas. So it's no surprise that when he branches out to more popcorn-y entertainment with the crime drama "Widows," he still delivers a movie with plenty on its mind.

Focusing on a group of widows who take up the mantle of their career criminal spouses, "Widows" was originally filmed in the 80's as a British TV miniseries. In updating the setting to modern day Chicago, McQueen and writer Gillian Flynn ("Gone Girl") use the city's sociopolitical climate to weave issues of race, class, and gender into its pulpy premise, adding an extra layer to what's already a satisfying thriller.

Viola Davis stars as Veronica, whose husband Harry (Liam Neeson) and his crew are killed attempting to carry out a robbery that goes catastrophically wrong. But it turns out that amongst the money that goes missing in the process is two million dollars from crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), and he'd very much like it back. He gives Veronica until the end of the month to repay what her husband owed, or face deadly consequences at the hands of his brother and enforcer Jatemme (a terrifying Daniel Kaluuya).

A connected plotline involves Jamal having tossed his hat into the political ring, facing off in an election to be alderman of the 18th ward against racist incumbent Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall), who'd like to see his son Jack (Colin Farrell) succeed him in the position.

Veronica stumbles across a solution to her troubles when she uncovers Harry's notebooks of plans for a multi-million robbery. With few options left, she reaches out to the wives of the rest of Harry's crew, hoping to convince them to help her carry it out. After all, Jamal will soon be their problem too.

So we meet Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), an abused wife whose mother (Jacki Weaver) convinces her that her only hope is prostitution; dress shop owner Linda (Michelle Rodriguez); and Amanda (Carrie Coon), who just wants to look out for her infant child. There's also a late addition in the form of hairdresser Belle (Cynthia Erivo, fresh off her excellent turn in "Bad Times at the El Royale") who's recruited to be the women's driver.

Watching this disparate group of women come together as a team is one of the film's chief pleasures. Motivated by grief and anger at a broken system that, given enough time, corrupts everything it touches, the women decide to fight back. There's real excitement in seeing them unite and weaponize that system against a world that consistently underestimates them and tries to drag them down.

Even with the film's massive ensemble, every member of the stellar cast get meaty roles to latch onto. Debicki is a highlight, after scene-stealing supporting roles in a dozen films, she gets to shine with Alice's arc from fragile, abused wife to confident con artist.

But it's Viola Davis who owns the movie. For so long content to never ask too many questions about Harry's work, Veronica turns desperate as her comfortable life crumbles beneath her and her objective becomes pure survival. Davis lets us see Veronica's transformation, taking control of her life after years of trusting that her husband would provide and take care of her.

Working with his regular cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, McQueen adds unexpected and inspired bits of visual storytelling at every opportunity. One of my favorites finds him shooting a conversation between Farrell and his character's assistant from outside their car's tinted windows as they drive from a campaign rally back to their headquarters. The shot lets us focus on the economic disparity between the neighborhoods of their constituents and the gated mansions of those who claim to represent them.

Tense, thrilling, and smartly directed, "Widows" is a heist movie that proves popcorn entertainment doesn't have to sacrifice a bit of intelligence or artistry, making this gripping and immensely satisfying thriller one of the year's best films.

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