Michelle Rodriguez, Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki in Widows (Photo: Fox)

WIDOWS
***1/2 (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Steve McQueen
STARS Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez

Despite being steeped in violence, Widows opens with a steamy kiss – more than one, in fact. Veronica and Harry Rawlings (Viola Davis and Liam Neeson) appear to be the type of married couple who never exited the honeymoon phase, and their time seen together is playful and passionate. Unfortunately, Harry is a career crook, and it’s not long before he and his cohorts in crime are killed during a heist that goes terribly wrong.

Widows sets up these competing scenarios – back and forth and back and forth between the romance and the robbery – right at the beginning of the film, and then proceeds not so much to build on them but to dissect them, peering deep into their bowels and consequently spinning the story off in unexpected ways.

British filmmaker Steve McQueen, who won an Oscar for co-producing the Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave (he lost the actual directing statue to Gravity’s Alfonso Cuaron), has teamed with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn to adapt a six-part 1983 miniseries that was a big hit in the UK (the American TV remake, which aired on ABC in 2002 and starred Mercedes Ruehl and Brooke Shields, didn’t fare as well). Whittling the miniseries’ 290 minutes down to the movie’s 130 minutes couldn’t have been easy, but what remains is compact enough not to wear out its welcome yet expansive enough to give all of the major characters plenty of breathing room.

The title refers to the wives of the four dead men, with three of them (Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki) forced by outside aggressors to pick up where their husbands left off – by successfully planning and executing their own heist. What’s remarkable about Widows, though, is that its scope isn’t just limited to this trio and their caper.

Other characters are constantly being introduced, like a slick politician (Colin Farrell) who’s as corrupt as they come and yet occasionally seems to actually give a damn, or the hot-headed youngster (a chilling about-face for Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya) who just can’t stop hurting people, or the beauty salon employee (Tony Award winner Cynthia Erivo, fresh off her big-screen breakout in Bad Times at the El Royale) whose babysitting gig leads to a riskier proposition. And there are other story threads at play, but unlike Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, which suffers from too many plotlines being ineptly handled, this one benefits from its wealth of narrative, with nary a false move impeding its headlong plunge into a dynamic denouement.

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