Viola Davis (left) and Cynthia Erivo in Widows. 

Viola Davis (left) and Cynthia Erivo in Widows

Merrick Morton/The Associated Press

A crime kingpin runs his political campaign from a church as his opponent buys off minority voters under the guise of urban renewal. A recent widow, assigned to buy some guns for a robbery, asks how she's supposed to get them. The sneering reply: "It's America." A young black man in his dad's car is shot and killed by police; a young woman has to balance planning for a heist with planning for child care.

Widows, Steve McQueen's new high tension, of-the-moment thriller, is a genre movie through and through. But it's still got a lot on its mind. Between the expertly crafted chase scenes and shootouts you'll find issues of political corruption, gender inequality, police violence, class conflict and other matters ripped from the headlines and everyday life. 

Such ideas often percolate just beneath the surface of genre movies. In Widows, they surge to the top and explode. It's a heist movie as Molotov cocktail.

One of the alluring aspects of the genre movie is its malleability. Genres develop established rules and expectations; they provide cinematic comfort food. But they also mutate as they break those rules, sometimes subtly, or, in the case of Widows, brazenly. For instance, a Western like The Wild Bunch, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, can serve as character study, blood bath and commentary on the Vietnam War. A classic gangster movie — just about any of them, actually — can operate as a critique on the vagaries of capitalism. And a heist movie can pack a menu of social issues into its twisty corridors.

The most pointed genre deviation in Widows is clear enough. The criminal masterminds are women. In order to get what they want, they have to take on men who think they know more than they really do. We've seen similar set-ups before, from Set it Off (1996) to this year's Ocean's Eight. But Widows, co-written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), raises the stakes by emphasizing the here and now.

"These women were put in a situation where they had to grow, and the journey of the heist is part of that progression," McQueen says by phone. "They're forced to do thing they would never try to do. They are determined to take their destinies into their own hands."

Director Steve McQueen, photographed in October in Chicago. 

Director Steve McQueen, photographed in October in Chicago. 

Nuccio DiNuzzo/TNS

They've been left to twist in the wind when their larcenous husbands get killed doing a job, leaving their wives in debt to gangsters. One of the widows, played by Elizabeth Debicki, is pushed into prostitution by her mother. Her husband may be dead, but he's left her with some bruises on her face. Another widow, played by Michelle Rodriguez, has kids to raise, and the money for her quinceañera store died with her husband. When the leader, played by a smoldering Viola Davis, assembles this diverse crew, she's also initiating a #MeToo movie that wields brass knuckles. 

McQueen and Flynn realize that a set of talking points doth not a movie make. The plotting is taut, and with Flynn onboard you know there's always another twist just ahead. The images of nighttime Chicago shimmer with menace. Only occasionally does Widows show the strain of juggling so many real-world realities. It's too busy making you bite your nails and sweat to make an speeches.

McQueen based the film on an '80s British TV miniseries. But he knew he had to make it contemporary, and Chicago felt like the place.

"I wanted to tackle politics, religion, class, race, criminality and mourning, and to look at the locale and revert it like a telescope into the global," he says. He and Flynn interviewed politicians, FBI agents, police officers, criminals and private detectives. "We were grappling with a cacophony of voices. Authenticity is what we were after. It had to have a basis in reality."

Once you have that basis, you're free to roam. You can bring the car chases. You can add twists. 

You can provoke gasps that carry the conviction of recognition.

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