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Steve McQueen’s Widows deserves every single bit of hype it will get

The artist turned director reminds us that he’s one of the most inspired auteurs we have

This month, Patrik Sandberg is at Toronto International Film Festival reporting for Dazed on the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.

Steve McQueen is back with a vengeance. Five years after he swept up the Best Picture Oscar for 12 Years A Slave, his harrowing and majestic meditation on American slavery, the artist-turned-director is here to remind us of his formidable skill as one of the most penetrative and inspired directors we have. Based on a 1983 English miniseries, Widows is a film that fixes McQueen’s eye even more upon the commercial cinema format, a trajectory that has invited suspicion in spite of his increasing accolades picture over picture. Having tackled topics like sex addiction and starvation with uncompromising virtuosity, McQueen has built a reputation for being on the artistic side of the spectrum, rarely adhering to formula. But just like when Fincher lent his crystalline vision to pulp supermarket fiction with Gone Girl, McQueen tackles what is essentially a soap opera heist story with carnivorous gusto, resulting in one of the most elegant and shocking thrillers to hit theatres in years.

Welcome to dark and gritty Chicago, where a group of robbers, led by the gruff and perspicacious Harry (Liam Neeson), is finishing a job by speeding through the city with the cops on their tail. The chase, invigorating from the start, ends in a barrage of gunfire and a massive inferno that devours the team and widows three women with divergent lives: Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), a store owner who realizes without her husband’s help, she must shut down her business; Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), a trophy girlfriend of sorts who finds herself penniless and at the mercy of her meddlesome mother (Jacki Weaver) who pushes her to use Sugar Daddy dating sites to meet more wealthy benefactors; and Veronica (Viola Davis), who anchors the film’s premise, opting to take over her late husband’s criminal activities when a fearsome debt collector threatens her if she doesn’t pay what Harry owes.

“McQueen tackles what is essentially a soap opera heist story with carnivorous gusto, resulting in one of the most elegant and shocking thrillers to hit theatres in years”

Played by Brian Tyree Henry, Jamal Manning is a local criminal kingpin running for office, who employs his brother Jamette (a murderous Daniel Kaluuya) to track rivals and shake them down for money and information. Veronica lures the other widows to a sauna where she lays out her plan in no uncertain terms: having discovered a notebook Harry left behind detailing a planned robbery, the women will take over their husband’s duties, split the money, pay off their debts, and go their separate ways. Gleefully hardboiled, Davis’s Veronica almost takes pleasure in her new position of commandment, lording over other people to do her dirty work and escape the situation she’s been left in. She commands much of the movie with a bracing performance that is as fearsome as it is devastating (and, at times, funny), impressing once again that she is a performer not to be messed with.

The heist itself: to break into the vault of a prominent alderman of the 18th ward, a Trumpian dinosaur played with a macabre, old-school menace by none other than Robert Duvall (sample dialogue: “Fuck him and fuck you and fuck the fuckin’ horse you came in on, you fuckin’ asshole!”). His son, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) is running against Jamal for his father’s seat. By pitting Mulligan against Manning, and the women against Mulligan, McQueen adds a subplot to the mix that has implications for their robbery about class struggle, community repercussions, white provenance, as well as feminist agency. It’s a volatile mix of motivations that gives heft to the proceedings, even as McQueen makes light of them with crackling and popping dialogue that spins gravitas into gallows humour.

To watch the women methodically plot their heist and squabble along the way – seducing targets, visiting gun ranges, acquiring weapons with fake accents, buying the right vehicle at auction, fighting over costs – is exhilarating fun, even as the danger and violence mount at the corners of the story around them, each action hanging by a thread of credibility that risks their exposure and sudden death.

“Each performance is worthy of its own review”

There are enough twists and turns to power any good soap opera with more than a few cliffhangers, and the enjoyment McQueen takes in unleashing them upon his audience is an act of bristling showmanship that comes as a refreshing slap to the face in a season filled with more contemplative and quaint prestige fare. With cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, McQueen also takes opportunities to experiment with composition, creating unusual scenes that leave visual imprints sure to be remembered long after the credits roll, like a scene in which Mulligan and his aide argue in the back of a blacked out towncar, with Bobbitt’s camera swerving from one side of the hood of the car to the opposite along the exterior. It’s breathtaking work and the kind that only someone as audacious as McQueen would attempt. Weird moments such as these are what make him such an irrepressible auteur.

Each performance is worthy of its own review, which is to say that the ensemble delivers at every detour. Elizabeth Debicki continues to mesmerise and grow her legend as one of the most exciting actresses coming into her prime. Cynthia Erivo rockets onto the screen, fulfilling expectations from those who have known her as a stellar, Tony-winning performer. But it’s Viola Davis who owns the movie, harnessing enormous reserves of grief and perseverance into Veronica, the fiercest widow of them all. Seeing Widows in a packed theatre is an exercise in surround audiovisual stimulation. Listening to the audience suck in their breath, and mutter “oh nos” and “wows” at the film’s pivotal moments, made the hair on my neck stand on end. The collective experience of witnessing a story like this unfold is the reason we go to the movies and sit through them side by side in the dark. How lucky are we? God save McQueen, and let him keep giving us experiences as magnificent as this. The future of cinema depends on it.