Gillian Flynn, who cowrote Widows, specializes in dramas (Gone Girl, TV's Sharp Objects) that assert gender equality by suggesting it's sexist to regard women as less capable of anything — including deviousness or depravity.
So right in Flynn's wheelhouse is Widows (adapted from a British TV series), the story of a Chicago woman Veronica (Viola Davis) who loses her criminal mastermind husband (Liam Neeson) then finds out he owes a large sum of money to gangsters who want it back.
Veronica didn't know much about her husband's violent world, but she's willing to adapt, and so she recruits the other widowed members of her husband's crew (including Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki) to make good on the debt that has the three of them marked for death. At Veronica's urging and direction, they decide to pull of the heist her husband had been planning, which sure beats a bake sale.
The premise is a borderline gimmick, but director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) invests the movie with enough grit — it's set in the world of hardboiled Chicago politics — to draw us in. Part of the plot revolves around a politician (Colin Farrell) who has inherited the crooked political machine of his father (Robert Duvall), but who finds his once safe position in the ward is being challenged by tough rival (Brian Tyree Henry), who happens to be the gangster demanding money from Veronica. Early scenes established the ruthlessness of key players (Daniel Kaluuya from Get Out is Manning's murderous lieutenant), so we feel the stakes when Veronica and her amateur gang start plotting the robbery.
For a genre piece, the movie has an unusually good cast, led by Davis, who has no trouble supplying her character with requisite grit and authority. Debicki has a sharply drawn, sympathetic role as an abused woman who learns to stand up for herself (which takes some doing, as Debicki looks to be about 7 feet tall).
The plot has some twists, and they're guessable, but the movie's biggest surprise is the way it keeps exposing us to new layers of cynicism without eroding our interest in the characters. It helps that the "widows" register strongly as underdog rooting interests – British actress Cynthia Erivo joins the team late, as tough as any of the original members, so you actually feel sorry for the men they're up against.
Directed by Steve McQueen. With Viola Davis, Liam Neeson, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson. Distributed by 20th Century Fox.
Running time: 128 minutes
Parents' guide: R (violence)
Playing at: Area theaters