Widows cooks like a heist picture and sprawls like an epic drama

In the Saturday Night Live-based comedy MacGruber, Will Forte’s would-be action her assembles a kickass team of he-men during a stirring montage, packs them into a truck for a mission, and accidentally blows them all to hell. That’s not exactly what happens at the opening of Steve McQueen’s Widows, and probably drawing the comparison is a little bit insulting. But hear me out: McQueen dispatches an entire B-movie’s worth of tough guys with similar (if non-comic) efficiency, and precision-cut style. He toggles between a man and wife nuzzling in bed together and a brutal robbery turned car chase turned armed showdown. Back and forth it goes, quiet and loud, until the crew (including Liam Neeson and Jon Bernthal) is consumed in an explosion and, in the final pre-title image, the pillow next to Veronica (Viola Davis) lingers, empty. Her husband Harry (Neeson) isn’t coming back.

It will not surprise anyone to learn that the director of 12 Years a Slave is up to something more serious than a Rambo/MacGuyver hybrid. But McQueen is playing a game with genre expectations. Widows is a crime picture with a shamelessly entertaining hook, executed with real gravity: What if the widows of those men dispatched in the opening had to take up their husbands’ shady profession? It turns out that Harry was stealing from Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), an ambitious man trying to fight his way out of criminal life and into legit (if no less mob-like) Chicago politics. Jamal needs his war chest to challenge the nepotism that benefits his political opponent Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), connected through his irascible, racist father (Robert Duvall). When Jamal implores Veronica to get him the money by any means necessary, she in turn leans on fellow widows Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) to pick up an unused plan from Harry’s exacting notebook, steal a shit ton of money, clear their debt, and set themselves up for life in the process.

McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn, adapting a British miniseries, take this straight-ahead rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul plot and complicate it with Chicago sprawl, an insane parade of great actors, and good old-fashioned plot twists. But the material never feels outlandish. The filmmakers have a way of lingering on smaller fake-outs, while the bigger ones happen in a snap–a canny switch-up in tempo that both luxuriates in details and tightens the suspense. The novice status of Veronica, Linda, and Alice also means that Widows spends time on the details that plenty of other heist pictures take for granted: buying a gun, finding a proper getaway car, figuring out what their robbery target is. McQueen is less interested in laying out an elaborate plan than observing his characters wriggle in and out of corners.

This includes Viola Davis’s Veronica. Davis has a commanding presence, and she’d be an easy layup as the unflappable gang leader–a role Veronica is consciously attempting to embody as she embarks upon her first real crime (she’s been a teacher’s union rep—tough negotiator, but with the force of respectability behind her). This isn’t the chummy bonding of an Ocean’s picture, and Veronica hides wounds in her marriage and family that McQueen, Flynn, and Davis reveal gradually. Davis’s biggest moments on film so far have often involved open-nerve emotion more associated with the stage (think of those powerhouse showcase scenes in Doubt and Fences), and Widows gives her at least one wrenchingly tearful scene, but the smooth genre surface allows for one of her most magnetic performances. Alice’s pain is more upfront–she’s first seen nursing a bruise in the aftermath of her husband’s abuse–and Debicki is terrific as a woman exerting some control over her life through burgeoning criminality.

The politics of Widows are sometimes on the nose; characters discuss the racial, socioeconomic, and systemic problems of their situations often enough to keep the audience from drawing some of those connections themselves. But McQueen understands that eavesdropping into these conversations doesn’t necessarily put you in the room where it happens. Or, as it were, the car where it happens, when he stages one dialogue scene with the camera locked to the outside of a vehicle, obscuring the characters from the audience.

That’s how most of the characters in the movie operate, selectively and strategically exposing certain vulnerabilities, keeping others simmering under the surface. Broken down into discrete plots, Widows might not be especially unpredictable; put together, it might seem unwieldy. But McQueen’s gigantic ensemble is perfect for piece-shuffling and misdirection. Good heist pictures involve problem-solving, knowing a system well enough to game it. Widows cooks like a genre film while pointing out the systemic flaws that make One Big Heist seem so appealing. Or, in this case, so crucial to survival.