Rating: ★★★☆☆

Much like his openings to Hunger and Shame, director Steve McQueen’s masterful skill hooks you into both the visceral action and compelling private intimacy of Widows before a single word is spoken. Adapted by McQueen and Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn from Lynda La Plante’s crime novel, Widows takes hold on us from the outset, though its grasp becomes slippery as the drama unfolds. Despite a formidable ensemble of actors, this simmering heist-thriller struggles nonetheless to contain all its elements.

Veronica Rawlins’ (Viola Davis) life is turned upside down when her husband Harry (Liam Neeson) and his criminal crew are killed in a botched heist and the stolen cash incinerated along with them. The underworld of Chicago that has, unbeknownst to her, supported the Rawlins’ affluent lifestyle soon comes knocking for Veronica by those Harry targeted (Brian Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya). In order to deliver the money, she enlists the crew’s other widows (Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki) and a determined bystander (Cynthia Erivo) to pull off a new heist on a corrupt local politician (Colin Farrell). Yet the crew is drawn together less by the adrenaline rush of the stunt and hope of reward than a desperate need to survive and overcome the limits that their previous lives placed upon them. As the job gets ever closer and risks increase, will each woman hold their nerve for each other and for themselves?

Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo fully embody the women who become tough, determined and highly capable without losing sight of their desperation and vulnerability. Davis magnetic, resolute presence forms the gravity around which these performances orbit without eclipsing them.

McQueen’s assured direction and long-term collaborator Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography navigates us deftly between palpitating action, personal turmoil and political commentary. Widows’ early momentum builds the panicked heartbeat of the heist while seamlessly blending the heartfelt (though clearly difficult) private lives of the couples through its responsive soundscape (a fortunately complimenting, resonant score from Hans Zimmer) and intuitive cutting. For all the action is smartly constructed and tensely wound, the underlying emotional textures of tenderness, grief and recovery remains a significant constant and developing element. Unlike its preceding entries in the genre (such as Ocean’s Eleven, The Thomas Crown Affair, Baby Driver), any ‘thrills’ to be taken from the plotting and execution of the heist are suffocated by the ‘dog-eat-dog’ world that Widows situates our protagonists in. There is no exciting camaraderie here- just cold opportunism, purely transactional relationships and survival instincts. Yet McQueen and Flynn do overburden here as they utilise the ‘heist-story’ as  catalyst to explore contemporary socio-political themes. Difficulties of alternating gender roles, interracial relationships , economic divisions and social precariousness punctuate the narrative sharply, though jarringly, when not left to otherwise percolate. Unfortunately, McQueen and Flynn are slightly unwieldy in their approach, pulling upon those multiple topical socio-political strands and attempting to weave them into the heist-story. This certainly helps to establish Chicago in its gritty thorniness- the entwining of street and city hall- but the otherwise solid narrative and thematic focus on the four women gets diverted from. Where Duvall and Farrell’s generational fights over traditional white political dynasty nudge into the narrative, Erivo’s Belle or Rodriguez’s Linda feel shunned aside. Flynn’s characteristic twists (reminiscent of Gone Girl), also end up undermining the pervasive realism and slightly cheapen the climax’s tumultuous confrontation.

Not that this blunts the terrific ensemble performances of Widows’ cast. As the script leans as heavily on the tight-lipped silences and defensive posture of its characters as the curt dialogue, McQueen has selected a highly-skilled cast. Davis, Rodriguez, Debicki and Erivo fully embody the women who grow to be tough, determined and highly capable without losing sight of their desperation and vulnerability- each member is gripping to watch. Though in levelling the film’s grimness, McQueen and Flynn also allow for moments of sardonic humour which the four actors seize upon (when Debicki’s Alice questions where they’ll get the guns on their shopping list, Davis responds ‘This is America’). The quartet establish transparently that these women are not easy nor long-term allies despite a begrudging admiration and mutual respect for each other breaking through at times (a far cry from Gary Ross’ similarly feminised, though more celebratory Ocean’s 8). Davis’ magnetic presence provides the gravity around which these performances orbit without eclipsing them. This isn’t just born out of her brittle, no-nonsense drive, but also a sense of an increasingly insecure interior. As much as Davis doubles-down on power-plays and pep talks (‘No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off’ she declares fiercely), its balanced out with a jittery terror at her circumstances; nagging self-doubt in the poignant, pained reflections of married life; and aching grief for recent and past losses. It is outstanding how all these potentially crippling feelings culminate not in despair- but sheer resolve. The supporting cast are also committed in sustaining the morally ambiguous Chicago-an landscape: Farrell’s alderman is duplicitously slick but hides deep contempt at his role, legacy and ability while Kaluuya displays icy, eye-balling sadism as gangster-enforcer Jatemme (though, admittedly, while Kaluuya gives the menace his all, the role is a bit too one-dimensional). Even minor ‘cameos’ from Neeson, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Jackie Weaver, Lukas Haas and Jon Michael Hill are each distinct, convincingly ‘worn-in’ and multi-faceted despite their limited screen-time.

Widows’ climatic heist is satisfyingly tense and involving, as even the best laid plans only last until the execution. While Widows doesn’t reach the engaging complexity or almost tactile intensity of his earlier work, it is a relieving step forward from the hollow, ‘worthy’ horror-show of 12 Years A Slave, in my opinion. Widows is a bold attempt to getaway from, even subvert the sub-genre conventions and McQueen and Flynn have certainly created a far more sensitive, intelligent thriller for it. While director and co-writer do intriguingly dig into the political and emotional terrain that the ‘heist-narrative’ sits upon, the ultimate emotional payoff is nevertheless slightly underwhelming.