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Widows - Elizabeth debicki, Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo 20th Century Fox

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Widows joins Ocean’s 11 and Heat in the heist-movie canon

Every second of Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn’s thriller owns

Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

Just days before executing their first ever high-security heist, Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) and her squad of amateur criminals run a drill. What will sprinting 25 yards with $2 million worth of $100 bills feel like? Forty-four pounds of hell, they determine, which will be nothing if the vault they’re targeting is stocked with 88 pounds of $50 bills. A black duffel with the heavier load sends Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) buckling to the floor.

If they’re caught in the act, the money could be the literal death of the women. Yes, there’s a metaphor there, but in Widows, bluntness creates a dramatic pulse that blows viewers back in their chairs, then ripples through up their spines. Every beat of of the new thriller, from 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen and Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, delivers either a roaring performance, a bit of plot ingenuity, a pang of social commentary or a punctuating musical cue, and time to savor it just ... long ... enough ... before the movie shifts gears and speeds off like a squealing getaway car. In the case of the cash-bag scene, the next reason to gasp, squeal and cheer is the hammer drop of Davis’ surrogate matriarch:

“The best thing we have going for us is being who we are ... NO ONE THINKS WE HAVE THE BALLS TO PULL THIS OFF.”

[Ed. note: The rest of this review contains mild spoilers for Widows.]

Viola Davis and Cynthia Erivo in Widows Merrick Morton/20th Century Fox

Loosely based on a 1983 British TV series of the same name, Widows transplants the action to Chicago to find a web of disconnected people navigating the aftermath of a botched robbery. A run-in with the police takes the lives of Veronica’s husband Harry and his entire crew, leaving her to grieve and wonder what’s next. Reality dissolves Veronica’s memories of more blissful moments when the target of Harry’s operation, crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), comes knocking at her door (and grabbing her adorable white terrier by the scruff, which is a horror show!). Turns out the $2 million that Harry lifted from Manning was a war chest to defeat Chicago’s sleazy crown prince, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), in an election for alderman of a South Side neighborhood. Now he wants it back. In a month. And Veronica is going to get it for him.

The widow’s survival plan arrives posthumously from Harry: a notebook containing plans for yet another multimillion-dollar theft that reads like Danny Ocean Heists for Dummies. If Veronica pulls off the $5 million job, she’ll walk free. She just needs a team, which she finds in the women left behind by Harry’s explosive crime-gone-wrong. Rodriguez’s Linda is a single mother who discovers that her criminal husband spent their savings on booze and gambling; Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) was “kept” by money and trapped by abuse, and is resorting to high-end prostitution after her boyfriend’s death; Amanda (Carrie Coon), now a single mother of a newborn, opts out of the operation, and is replaced by hairdresser Belle (Cynthia Erivo), who’s fast as hell thanks to juggling multiple jobs to feed her kid and hustling to catch the bus and make it all work.

Glimpses of the women’s everyday lives, which McQueen and Flynn use to prove their stamina and agency, convince us that the heist is the only course of action. With the slickness of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 (and the makeshift sensibilities of his other crime movie, Logan Lucky), the quartet cobble together the pieces of Harry’s plan. We see Linda, a saleswoman by day, go into detective mode to decode a set of blueprints. Later, Alice puts on a Polish accent to convince a sympathetic mother to buy her three handguns from a gun show. Loose laws make it all too easy.

Daniel Kaluuya and Brian Tyree Henry in Twentieth Century Fox’s WIDOWS.
Daniel Kaluuya and Brian Tyree Henry in Widows.
20th Century Fox

Setting the movie against a corrupt-vs.-more-corrupt election makes the political angle a given, but the way Widows tackles the gender chasm, gentrification, police brutality and local class warfare empowers the movie’s most operatic swings. A scene in which we follow Jack Mulligan from a public development rally to his suburban mansion just a few blocks away — all done in a single shot locked on Jack’s chauffeured black car, background houses in plain sight — is a brutal indictment of McQueen’s Chicago filming location. Hearing Robert Duvall’s Tom Mulligan, the elder of Jack’s political dynasty, drop the n-word in political strategizing is a swift punch to the gut; when we pick back up with Veronica, the slur lingers, though it’s unable to erode her drive. The juxtaposition is a comment on black female power we rarely see.

Widows is an illuminating film that remains squarely in the crowd-pleaser category thanks to a perfectly calibrated ensemble. McQueen and Flynn’s script is one of the first in eons to summon the spirit of Heat — not just the action sequences, but the bravado of Pacino, de Niro, Kilmer, et al. spewing Michael Mann’s supreme dialogue. In Viola Davis’ hands, Veronica is a pendulum who swings from grieving soul to living thunder cloud. A tender turn from Rodriguez proves she’s completely underused in the Fast and Furious franchise, and Debicki’s and Erivo’s performances feel like star turns for actresses who’ve been doing steady work for years.

While it’s a delight to see Farrell play a quivering schmuck and Henry jump from Atlanta to the big time, it’s Get Out Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya who actually steals every ounce of air whenever he steps into the room. Playing Jamal Manning’s brother, Jatemme, the muscle of the family, Kaluuya delivers a performance that’s one part Alonzo Harris and two parts Anton Chigurh. There are gory spurts to Widows, and in each, Kaluuya is hovering like the Angel of Death.

Widows strikes that perfect balance between the talents of McQueen, a director whose films grapple with society’s many vicious, manmade battles, and Flynn, a master of pulpy stories with major payoffs. There are many twists in the movie and even twists on top of twists — none that I dare spoil, but each of which left me deeply satisfied in a way I haven’t felt since The Sixth Sense. Even if you see where it’s going from a mile away, the winding way of how Widows get there, and the boom that each piece makes as it lands into place, makes this one of the best movies of the year and a high point for a genre rife with imitations.

Widows is out now in theaters.