Nothing against the “Ocean’s” franchise — the ska cover band of ensemble crime flicks; chipper, sharp-suited fun you can nod your head to. But if you dig on heist movies, get thee to see “Widows,” which prefers a hard stare in the mirror over any sort of winking smirk. Director Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) gives you a Chicago crime pic that feels more rousing, and with higher stakes. Small as it seems, the twist of letting our protagonists steel themselves for their first-ever job means “Widows” avoids many of the genre’s traps, the foremost of which is simple weariness.
We start this gritty drama in bed. Veronica (Viola Davis) and Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) are married and in love. We cut to some kind of heist gone awry, Neeson driving a van full of dudes, bullets flying, cops in pursuit. The four-man crew make it to a warehouse where another van awaits, and as the crooks make the switch, and open the garage door, a phalanx of cops outside rains bullets on them. There’s an explosion; everyone is charcoal. Soon after, a gangster named Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) shows up at Veronica’s door to say her prolific thief of a late husband hit him for $2 million in that final job and the debt is now hers to pay off. Thirty days, or else. And you know it’s legit because Manning’s brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya, of “Get Out”), is a sleepy-eyed enforcer with liquid nitrogen in his veins.
It happens that this particular heavy, Manning, is running for an alderman seat long controlled by one family. His slick scion of an opponent, Jim Mulligan (Colin Farrell) would all but inherit the seat from his bitter old machine politician father (Robert DuVall, as the aging dad you don’t want). The younger Mulligan has the name and the knack for politics, but it’s not yet clear that he has the stomach or the instincts. While serving on a transit commission he managed to accumulate $5 million in overcharges that dog his campaign, and it’s that kind of kickback that has Manning eyeing the seat as well. Once you get into office, he figures, you get a piece of absolutely everybody’s action.
This is the vice Veronica’s caught in: pinched between a gangster who wants to be a politician and a city where the politicians have to be gangsters. So she enlists other wives of the incinerated crew, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez, whom you know from the “Fast & Furious” franchise, “Lost”) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki, whom you probably don’t know, but soon will), informing them they’re all dead if they don’t come up with the cash. Fortunately, to this end, Harry left behind one item that may point to a job big enough to cover the debt and leave them all with something left over. The glaring problem here is that none of them have experience as thieves, and prison and getting shot are both real things that happen when you try to steal a few million bucks.
Written by McQueen and “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn, the script leans aerodynamic, given to speed without much romance. The leads all are grieving; the fun of watching them claw their way toward the job is seeing how, in tight spaces, they make the mundane tasks of a heist feel tense again. Let’s say you needed to acquire, oh, three Glocks, knowing you were going to use them in a crime. How would you do that? Or a random blueprint of a building you wanted to rob. You got an idea of how to track down the identity of a single, specific room in Chicago? Like, seriously, pretend your life depends on it.
Held against the gold standards for gangster films, McQueen is blazing something different from Guy Ritchie’s quips and quick cuts or Martin Scorsese’s East Coast male mafiosos. There are sly jokes (a plastic shopping bag heavy with Glocks counts) and quietly virtuoso visuals, like the steady shot on a hood-mounted cam of a jarringly short drive to Jim Mulligan’s posh manse. Or being planted in a basketball gym where Jatemme is staring down a couple of hoods, his cold cobra eyes bugging as the camera circles around them and the tension cranks up like a loaded catapult. This is gripping, fresh crime noir, and damn fine cinema, to boot.