TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Five years after winning an Oscar for best picture for "12 Years A Slave," the British director Steve McQueen has returned with "Widows," a crime thriller starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Liam Neeson. It's adapted from Lynda La Plante's British TV series of the same title which aired in the 1980s. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: What do you do after you've made three studiously grim art films about an Irish prison revolt, an out-of-control sex addict and the horrors of slavery? If you're Steve McQueen, the British director of "Hunger," "Shame" and "12 Years A Slave," you cut loose with a crackling heist thriller, featuring a juicy cast of A-list actors at the top of their game. But McQueen being McQueen, he can't help doing this grand-scale Hollywood entertainment his way. As tense and sinuous and gripping as much of it is, "Widows" never feels like escapism. It has as much to say about how race, class, gender and politics intersect in American life as any movie I've seen this year.
The story, furiously compressed from a 1980s British TV series, takes place in modern-day Chicago. In the opening scenes, four professional thieves are cornered in their getaway van and gunned down by police. The van explodes and burns to a crisp, along with $2 million in cash. The dead men include the veteran ringleader Harry Rawlings, played by Liam Neeson. Viola Davis plays Harry's grief-stricken widow Veronica. But she has no time for tears. The money was stolen from Jamal Manning, played by Brian Tyree Henry, who's campaigning to become the first black alderman of Chicago's 18th Ward. Manning has criminal ties, and he gives Veronica one month to pay him back or suffer grave consequences.
In a bold move, Veronica turns to the other three widows and suggests that they join forces and pull off an even bigger job, a $5 million robbery that her husband, Harry, had carefully plotted out in the little brown notebook that is now in her possession. One of the wives declines. But the other two, Linda, played by Michelle Rodriguez, and Alice, played by Elizabeth Debicki, agree to the plan. They're desperate and willing to try anything. Though, they aren't quite ready for Veronica's taskmaster routine, when she forces them to practice running around with the weight of $5 million in cash strapped to their backs.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WIDOWS")
VIOLA DAVIS: (As Veronica) So over here we have $2 million - 20 Tupperware boxes. Each box has a hundred thousand dollars in $100 bills. It weighs 44 pounds. Now, over here we have $2 million - 40 Tupperware boxes. Each box has $50,000 in $50 bills. It weighs 88 pounds.
MICHELLE RODRIGUEZ: (As Linda) I feel like I'm in school.
CYNTHIA ERIVO: (As Belle) Tell me about it.
DAVIS: (As Veronica) We got to start thinking like professionals. We're in business together. There's not going to be some cozy reunion. After this job, we're done. We have three days to look and move like a team of men. The best thing we have going for us is being who we are.
ELIZABETH DEBICKI: (As Alice) Why?
DAVIS: (As Veronica) Because no one thinks we have the [expletive] to pull this off.
CHANG: Despite their focus on procedure, McQueen and his co-screenwriter, "Gone Girl" author Gillian Flynn, aren't especially interested in the heist for its own sake. Instead, they use Veronica's scheme to bring us deep into the corrosive world of Windy City politics. Manning is running for alderman against Jack Mulligan, played by a smooth Colin Farrell, whose family has held power in the ward for decades. It's a measure of the script's cynicism that neither the African-American challenger nor the white incumbent comes off as heroic or admirable here. Mulligan's family is mired in dirty dealings, while Manning has a crew of murderous henchmen overseen by his brother, played by a positively terrifying Daniel Kaluuya from "Get Out."
Caught between these two equally corrupt campaigns are the widows. And McQueen, while sympathetic to their plight, never once softens his gaze. Nor does he lose sight of the differences in background and temperament that make these women such unlikely conspirators. Veronica lives in a tony part of town and has a chauffeur who drives her around in a luxury SUV. Linda has two kids and a family business that's forced to close down thanks to her late husband's gambling debts. Alice makes ends meet by joining a high-priced escort service, a choice that Veronica judges her harshly for at first, though the movie wisely doesn't.
"Widows" doesn't overplay these differences of race, class and privilege. Its diversity feels like a matter-of-fact reflection of a city's internal dynamics. And it's thrilling to watch Veronica, Linda and Alice work passed those differences as they seize control of their lives in a way that no one - least of all, perhaps, their late husbands - would have expected them to do.
McQueen's visual framing is less rigid and deliberate than usual, giving the story sweep and momentum. "Widows" is a well-oiled narrative machine, with an abundance of moving parts and startling twists that arrive perfectly on cue. But it might have felt airless or mechanical if McQueen didn't get so much raw, unruly feeling out of his actors. Davis, carrying a movie in a way she's never done before, commands her every scene. Cynthia Erivo has a terrific late-breaking role as a hard-working single mom who's enlisted as the getaway driver.
But the revelation here is Elizabeth Debicki as Alice, a woman who's used to being underestimated and who transforms before our eyes into the heist's MVP. She even succeeds in stealing one big scene from Viola Davis. And in Hollywood, that's grand larceny.
GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with Rob Dunn, author of a new book about all the bacteria, viruses, fungi and insects that inhabit your home out of your sight, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
(SOUNDBITE OF AARON GOLDBERG'S "EFFENDI")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Seth Kelley. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF AARON GOLDBERG'S "EFFENDI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.