‘Widows’ is a masterclass in woke mainstream filmmaking

I wish all Liam Neeson thrillers were as good as Widows. Because, in one sense, that’s what this movie is: a big juicy vehicle for Neeson to shoot people and steal stuff. Except he dies in the opening scene. And that’s when Widows gets interesting. Steve McQueen, once an acclaimed artist who I bumped into at the 2009 Venice Biennale (ain’t that a sentence), has upgraded from coordinator of superb performance showcases (Hunger, Shame) to vivid historical epics (12 Years A Slave) to this complex, unpredictable, stunningly well-realised genre film; the likes of which we rarely see done so brilliantly this decade.

Viola Davis is Neeson’s widow, left to clean up the mess after his crew of top-tier criminals are killed during a robbery. She recruits the widows of his accomplices — Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Carrie Coon — to help her finish her husband’s job. So far, so Ocean’s 8. But what makes Widows so special is that is has zero intention of being a heist movie. It’s a post-Michael Mann political thriller with its eyes on the darkest side of modern Chicago and its soul ripped from the best 80s and 90s crime cinema. But, y’know, with a ton of feminism. It’s an incredibly rewarding watch.

Forcing the widows into their criminal situation is the duo of Bryan Tyree Henry and Daniel Kaluuya, arguably the two most urgently in-demand actors of the moment. And McQueen makes such good use of their electric talents; his camera spins around Kaluuya listening to a prisoner rap with a terrifying stare, before a gun is pulled from nowhere. The match of director and actor is so strong, one imagines they’ll be collaborating for quite a while yet.

Tyree Henry’s character is running for local ward against nepotistic incumbent Colin Farrell, the son of (racist) local stalwart Robert Duvall. Duvall has less than 10 minutes of screentime but he’s unforgettable: this is the performance he should’ve given in The Judge four years ago if The Judge wasn’t.. umm.. terrible. He and Farrell spew and bark at one another and firmly assert how underrated they are; the latter possibly giving the strongest performance in the whole film. His main competition is Debicki, insanely tall and insanely blond, harsh but sympathetic; marking herself a shoo-in for a future Mission: Impossible role.

Gillian Flynn’s script builds to simultaneous criminal, political and personal crescendos with nary a second spared to take a breath. There’s a fluid incorporation of white characters and people of colour into the same professions, the same scenarios, that doesn’t feel intentionally progressive or overly-virtuous; McQueen just has a naturalism to his storytelling that facilitates the diverse goals he’s achieving. Police brutality and government corruption on the southside provide the backdrop to the story, but it’s fundamentally a movie about a bunch of cool women stealing a lot of money. The topical periphery is woven in subtly, just as it ideally should. Let McQueen take a crack at any franchise he wants: Bond, M:I, The Boss Baby, whatever. Everyone will go home happier when he works his magic.