WIDOWS

Viola Davis and Cynthia Erivo star in Twentieth Century Fox’s "Widows."

"Widows" shows a female-led story doesn't have to be goofy like "Ocean's 8" to draw a crowd. It can be thoughtful, provocative and compelling.

Viola Davis, always up for that kind of mix, stars as Veronica, one of several women who have been left without a dime when their husbands are killed in an explosion. The men led shady lives and had ties to some pretty dark characters but they never planned for their spouses’ futures.

When Veronica gets a notebook – left to her in a safe deposit box – she sees plans for another heist and calls the women together. If they pull off the crime, they’ll be able to pay an outstanding debt and have enough to start new lives. What else, though, will they find?

Based on a British miniseries, “Widows” starts slowly, then picks up steam, particularly when the women pull together and divide the work. Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki are two of the survivors; Cynthia Erivo is a friend they pull in when their driver is axed from the equation.

Director Steve McQueen makes this a higher-end thriller, giving Davis and Debicki plenty of grist for an acting seminar. Both have scenes of great emotion but even better encounters with Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell as a father/son team who dominate Chicago politics. They’re a greasy pair up against a newcomer (Brian Tyree Henry), who’s just as corrupt.

Showing us the dealing that goes on in politics, McQueen suggests there’s more to the business than we ever thought. Even those who pretend to defend the little guy are looking out for themselves.

The screenplay, by Gillian Flynn and McQueen, twists and turns enough to keep you guessing about the outcome and who really has the most to lose.

Through flashbacks, we see darker moments – including the death of Veronica’s son – and the strained relationship she had with her husband (Liam Neeson), who appears to have been the gang’s kingpin.

A blindingly white apartment in a Chicago skyscraper suggests Veronica is living the good life. She has a dog that goes with her everywhere and a commitment to the truth that’s unflappable. But when that dog gets into the real world, there's a scrappy side to both that transpires.

Daniel Kaluuya turns up as one of Henry’s thugs; Carrie Coon slides in as a woman with more information than you’d think.

But it’s Davis, Debicki, Erivo and Rodriguez who dominate – a strong quartet who prove men don’t have a lock on action.

Erivo runs like an Olympic medalist; Debicki uses her beauty to deflect; and Rodriguez grounds the others, just in case they forget the goal.

“Widows” has such a solid story and cast it’s bound to figure into year-end best lists. It’s a telling drama that doesn’t just get your heart pumping, it gets your mind racing.

McQueen is one of the first directors to remind us it isn’t just politics as usual in Washington or anywhere else.

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