The movie business is so back-to-front and topsy-turvy right now that Steve McQueen has had to cash in the industry collateral earned from making challenging arthouse dramas about dirty protests, sex addiction and slavery to make a Saturday night thriller for grown-ups - the kind of thriller the studios used to knock out in their sleep, yet which all but died off the minute the suits started sticking their heads in comic books, and which now has to be resuscitated as a special event. The material has previous. Widows began life as a Lydia LaPlante-penned miniseries for Thames Television in 1983 (which opens up the amusing possibility of the teenage McQueen sitting stony-faced through episodes of Never the Twain to get at it) before being remade in the US - with Brooke Shields, Rosie Perez and significant plot alterations - in 2002. This third adaptation, undertaken by McQueen with Gone Girl scribe Gillian Flynn, qualifies as recognisably post-HBO (and, more specifically yet, post-The Wire): it brings a gritty reality to LaPlante's narrative of robbers' wives-turned-robbers, partly by extending the original author's lines of inquiry into a vision of a modern metropolis (here, old Chicago) divided along multiple faultlines - rich/poor, black/white, perhaps even men/women - by politicos keen to make a buck.
There's a degree of continuity with McQueen's Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, if we understand the unlikely stick-up gals led by Viola Davis's Veronica to be individuals at the mercy of a rapacious system, obliged to take extreme measures just to survive. (McQueen and Flynn's proposed countermeasure is female solidarity, a diverse selection of women - Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Carrie Coon, Cynthia Erivo - intersecting in a bid to improve their odds.) What's immediately apparent is that McQueen has shaken off the sometimes questionable mannerism of his earlier work. Although there are appreciable symmetries in the director's framings here, you can feel him relaxing into the idea of making cinema rather than statements or art - which is not to say that he's given up on the last two aims, just that he's found ways of integrating them into a much bigger picture. Sometimes, this process is simple: holding an extreme close-up on a speaker lamenting that "ignorance is the new excellence" and that "the less you know, the more you gain" allows McQueen to drive home his editorial on the shortfalls of leadership in latter-day America. More often, though, it's a subtle, crafted business - subtle like pivoting the camera attached to the bonnet of slick JFK wannabe Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell)'s limo during a long dialogue scene, so that we see first the projects lining one side of the street, then the bouji mansions on the other as the car rounds a corner. (Behind the dialogue, then, an idea: that we are not as far apart as those who divide us would like us to think we are.)
Above all else, the new project looks to have been motivated by a desire to give a proper movie movie exceptional, corroborating layers of detail. It earns points for being a rare contemporary thriller where, when the characters go to Google something, they actually bring up Google, rather than a cheaper-to-licence mock-up; and for the cleverness of working a vocal-disguise toy one of Rodriguez's kids is seen playing with early on into the final heist. It's the performers who lug most of this detail into shot. Clearly, after the Oscar, half the Western world was lining up to work with this director, which allows McQueen to fill even minor roles with dependable presences. (Garret Dillahunt is nervily chivalrous as Davis's driver, and even if Orange is the New Black's Michael J. Harney seems to have suffered in the edit as the detective tailing the robbers, there's a strong case to be made for Widows being the best cast crime movie since Michael Mann's Heat.) The pleasures of the ensemble movie - of markedly different personalities rubbing up against one another, sometimes agreeably, sometimes with friction - are very much present and correct, yet even here there's a freshness to the way McQueen marshals his players through the set-up. One of the robbers' wives drops out of their planned heist, for reasons only belatedly revealed; Erivo's factotum is introduced a good half-hour into proceedings.
Rather than a machine-tooled genre piece, then, we're watching plans being revised, life getting in the heroines' way - and the way they negotiate these snafus itself introduces new notes to what might have been familiar material. It's refreshing, to say the least, to encounter a mainstream thriller driven not by cool, brute-force machismo, but vast reserves of empathy: the empathy Debicki relies upon in recruiting an auction regular to advise her which van to snap up for getaway purposes, or which Rodriguez draws on in drawing closer to a bereaved architect. McQueen and Flynn don't just show but make us feel how their heroines are obliged to juggle childcare with keeping the wolves from the door; they linger on the sisterhood implicit in a look Davis gives Erivo late on, and draw matters to a close with the most empathetic last line in recent memory. Contrast their words and actions with those of the resolutely self-interested men around them - Farrell's blase Mulligan, his openly racist father Tom (Robert Duvall), ruthless killer Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), the rough-edged robber husbands - and you realise that the film permits a convincing (and still rare) triumph for women who give a fuck over men who could scarcely give less of one.
There remains the (very) faint possibility that, after a run of hard-to-sell projects, McQueen conceived Widows as a means of giving the multiplex audience what they actually want. I don't believe he's become that cynical this early in his filmmaking career, but even if the hypothesis were true, McQueen always senses how much to give us and how much to withhold to leave us wanting more. Perhaps this is what he's picked up from the author of Gone Girl: while serving up the pulpy twists that made LaPlante's story such a hit in an ITV primetime slot, McQueen and Flynn use these revelations to fill in scenes missing from the first half - it's an astonishingly deft piece of screenwriting, repurposing what might otherwise have been narrative mortar (or cause for flabby exposition) to stick us to our seats. There are limitations: although the Amazonian Debicki - the only performer here who might have crossed over from the set of Ocean's 8 - has a couple of funny bits, there's not much more suggestion here that McQueen has a sense of humour than there was in Hunger or Shame. Yet that judiciously applied seriousness - as opposed to the smothering sixth-form self-seriousness of a Christopher Nolan or Zack Snyder - may be what mainstream movies have been missing these past decades, and why Widows presents as such arrestingly distinctive entertainment. (It is as Davis's Veronica floats at one point: "If you're not serious...") I couldn't blame you if you'd given up saying prayers for the future of the American cinema at this point; but if not, let us pray that Widows does colossal business, and that its director doesn't wind up making Black Panther sequels.
Widows is now playing in cinemas nationwide.