Director Steve McQueen uses popcorn entertainment to talk about the world we live in with '12 Years a Slave' follow-up

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Steve McQueen's "Widows" is a heist movie with a pulse.

The director of "12 Years a Slave" follows up his 2013 Best Picture-winner with a deceptively simple looking bang-bang shoot-em-up, but this is a smart, resonant, topical film with much more on its plate than what first appears. Come for the popcorn entertainment, stay for the social commentary.  

But it's also a soapy thrill ride where at least one character presumed dead comes back for a third act surprise and Viola Davis spouts lines that would get laughed off of TV's ""How To Get Away With Murder." When one of her fellow lady bank robbers is letting her emotions get in the way of the task at hand, Davis ices her with a line reading that's more farcical than it is vicious. "We have a lot of work to do," she snips at her. "Crying isn't on the list."

That line could have been taken from "Charlie's Angels," the movie or the TV show, but it shows the way "Widows" straddles the commercial and highbrow, and if it's jarring it's because so few filmmakers even attempt to make high-minded prestige fare that also plays well with mass audiences. We've been conditioned to think movies have to be one or another, "Jumanji" or "Jackie," and McQueen is able to have it both ways. 

Few are as slick as McQueen (who co-wrote the script, based off of a 1980s British TV miniseries, with "Gone Girl's" Gillian Flynn), and he shows his hand in a scene that takes place over the course of a car ride. Colin Farrell, playing a Chicago alderman candidate, is riding in a car, and in an unbroken shot, he is taken from a run-down section of the inner-city to an affluent neighborhood. It's just a few blocks, but it's several worlds apart, showing the economic disparity in Chicago and America as a whole. McQueen is making a statement about the worlds we live in and the realities of our class structure hierarchy, and he's doing it on screen, without flying a flag about it.  

The meat of "Widows" concerns Veronica Rawlins (Davis), a delegate for a teacher's union, whose bank robber husband Harry (Liam Neeson) is killed in a job gone bad. He was stealing from Jamal Manning ("Atlanta's" Brian Tyree Henry), a crime boss who wants the $2 million that was taken from him, and he comes calling to Veronica for it. It's up to her to get the cash, so she assembles a crew to carry out a heist her husband had planned on pulling off, teaming up with the other widows left behind from the botched job (played by Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki), even though they know as much about pulling off a robbery as they know about flying a rocket ship to the moon. 

Ridiculous premise cemented — think "Set it Off" with a social conscience — McQueen gets to work, juggling themes of sexism and racism while crafting an engrossing crime thriller. HIs ensemble cast includes a chilling Daniel Kaluuya as a menacing enforcer and Robert Duvall as a racist career politician.

In "Widows," corruption runs rampant and everyone is hustling everybody; the church is hustling the community, politicians are hustling voters, married couples are hustling each other. It's a cutthroat landscape: kill or be killed, play or get played.

McQueen's film is lithe enough to work both sides; it knows when it's being cheesy, and it uses those moments to make its bigger points about the world we live in. 'Widows" has a lot to do, and it makes easy work of it. Crying isn't on the list, everything else is fair game. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama 

'Widows'

GRADE: B+

Rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual content/nudity

Running time: 129 minutes

 

   

 

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