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'Widows' review: Viola Davis headlines a smart, suspenseful thriller

Filmmaker Steve McQueen makes a rare genre movie that entertains and has a lot to say about American life.

Michelle Rodriguez, Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki star

Michelle Rodriguez, Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki star in "Widows." Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox

'Widows'

DIrected by Steve McQueen

Starring  Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki

Rated R

"Widows" belongs to a sacred tradition of genre movies that have the nerve and courage to be about something more than the simple mechanics of their plots and the facilitation of empty entertainment.

One should expect as much from a film by Steve McQueen, last seen winning an Oscar for "12 Years a Slave," but that doesn't make it any less heartening to encounter this Chicago-set thriller, which is both engaging on a basic attention-grabbing level and smart in the ways it weaves in larger themes surrounding strains of gentrification and assimilation that are fundamental components of 21st century American life.

The picture stars Viola Davis as Veronica, whose life in a glittering Lake Shore Drive apartment circa 2008 cannot shield her from the fact that the wealth facilitating her lifestyle has been accumulated by her criminal husband Harry (Liam Neeson).

After Harry and his counterparts are killed while carrying out a heist gone bad, Veronica commits to planning a job of her own along with Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), the wives of two of Harry's men, in order to pay off a major debt to the crime boss and alderman candidate Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry).

There is a lot to unpack there and that's without even getting into a wealth of other major characters, from Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), the scion of a political family running against Manning for the South Side position, to others played by Lukas Haas, Cynthia Erivo, Robert Duvall, Daniel Kaluuya and more.

It is a testament to McQueen's mastery of this material (he also co-wrote the screenplay with "Gone Girl" author Gillian Flynn) that it never bogs down in convolutions and always maintains a pinpoint focus on the parallels between the different forms of corruption seen on-screen here, in which a stew of long-standing resentments and fears boils over into anger and violence.

There is no sequence that better illustrates the ways McQueen advances the movie's larger ideas about American life on the cusp of Barack Obama's election, with all of its attendant fantasies of a post-racial existence, than one in which Farrell's Mulligan holds a campaign event touting minority women-owned businesses in an economically devastated part of the neighborhood and then, in real time, drives back to his palatial home on a scrubbed-clean block at the edge of the district.

The camera remains perched outside the car, with our view of the characters obscured by its tinted windows as he rants at his assistant, the racist invective pouring out in force, his hypocrisy and fundamental emptiness communicated as powerfully by his words as it is by the rapidly changing scenery surrounding him.

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