Movie Review: McQueen directs Viola Davis in stylish heist flick ‘Widows’

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Widows' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — The next step after Oscar glory is always a fascinating career crossroads.

What should Steve McQueen direct after winning Best Picture with “12 Years a Slave” (2013)?

What role should Viola Davis play after winning Best Supporting Actress for “Fences” (2016)?

The answer: the two combine for the star-studded heist flick “Widows,” the type of crime flick that seems like we’ve seen it all before on paper, but which proves itself to be so unique, so stylish and so expertly crafted that it might just garner a few worthy Oscar nominations.

The premise whacks four criminal husbands in the intro, leaving four widows (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Carrie Coon) deeply in debt to the mob. Chicago kingpin Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) and his henchman (Daniel Kaluuya) give them 30 days to come up with $2 million, causing them to hatch a scheme to steal cash from political power broker Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall) and his rising campaign son Jack (Colin Farrell).

As powerful as Davis is in Civil Rights dramas from “The Help” (2011) to “Fences” (2016), it’s always refreshing to see her in other genres, be it legal dramas like TV’s “How to Get Away with Murder,” suspense thrillers like “Prisoners” or religious mysteries like “Doubt.” In “Widows,” her Veronica is a commanding presence, opening with passionate lovemaking, plunging into the depths of grief, then scrapping for survival with badass leadership skills.

She’s the perfect ringleader for a killer cast of accomplices. Rodriguez shines as clothing store owner Linda, who must suddenly juggle her kids as a single mom; Cynthia Erivo spits zingers as Linda’s go-to babysitter tapped to join the heist group when Coon’s Amanda is reluctant to get involved; and Debicki steals the show as Alice, overcoming scars from her abusive mother (Jacki Weaver) and doing whatever — and whoever — it takes to pull off the dangerous heist.

From the jump, the heroines scratch and claw in a male-dominated world, saying “They don’t think we have the balls to pull this off.” That includes Liam Neeson (“Taken”) in a string of memorable flashbacks; Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell as father-son politicians strategizing how to run the South Side of Chicago; and Daniel Kaluuya as one of the most sinister baddies we’ve seen in recent years, showing the flip side to his sympathetic hero in “Get Out” (2017).

If anything, Kaluuya is so damn terrifying that the script settles for his comeuppance, rather than that of his mob boss Jamal, who fades down the stretch in favor of a different resolution. I suppose that’s the point — that society’s biggest white-collar crooks often get away with it while underlings take the fall — but to audiences it feels like a loose end we want tied up.

Otherwise, screenwriter Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) provides a stellar adaptation of Lynda La Plante’s British TV series, peppering us with snappy dialogue, building complexly motivated characters and delivering some jaw-dropping twists. In a different filmmaker’s hands, this script could have rolled out like a standard-issue heist flick. In McQueen’s auteur hands, however, it’s a shining example of a director elevating the material to stylish new heights.

McQueen’s control is apparent right from the opening sequence, intercutting Davis and Neeson’s in-your-face lovemaking with action-packed snippets of his horribly botched deadly mission. From there, McQueen teams with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (“Hunger,” “Shame,” “12 Years a Slave”) for beautiful compositions inside Davis’ sleek high-rise apartment, showing Neeson in mirror reflections as Davis longs for her late husband amid Hans Zimmer’s music.

Still, McQueen’s best directorial touch comes in a scene where Farrell climbs into his car with a campaign aide. Lesser filmmakers would have followed him inside the car, but McQueen leaves his camera outside on the hood of the car as it drives away and we hear only audio of Farrell’s conversation. Why? He wants us to see the gentrified neighborhood shifting in the background, while hearing what shifty politicians say behind closed doors versus in public.

Such moments resemble an urban expose like “The Wire” (2002-2008) more than a caper romp like “Ocean’s 8” (2018). Danny Ocean might be able to rob a casino, but I’m not so sure he would survive on these streets. “Widows” is much tougher, grittier, literally a matter of life and death. Tone is everything in a movie and, in this one, McQueen sticks to it brilliantly.

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