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Michelle Rodriguez, Viola Davis, and Elizabeth Debicki talk in a place with no listening devices in Widows. 20th Century Fox

After making a movie like 12 Years a Slave, you can hardly fault Steve McQueen for wanting to lighten up for his next film. So we have Widows, a heist movie with a largely female cast. Only, lightness doesn’t seem to be in this filmmaker’s repertoire, so he makes an uneasy fit, even though the finished product is striking.

The film begins with Chicago high-end robber Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and the rest of his four-man crew leaving their homes for the day, intercut with their subsequent job going wrong and the men dying in a hail of police bullets and a fiery explosion. Soon afterward, mobbed-up alderman candidate Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) visits Harry’s widow Veronica (Viola Davis) to tell her that Harry stole Jamal’s $2 million in cash before it burned up. If Veronica doesn’t reimburse him by the end of the month, she and her cairn terrier will catch a bullet. When she learns that Harry stashed away $5 million somewhere, she recruits the other widows who are strangers to her to help illegally recover the money, pay off Jamal, and give their lives a fresh start. None of them has any special skills or criminal history. “Our biggest asset is who we are,” Veronica says. “No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.”

My first thought is, Geez, why did no one think to give Davis her own movie until now? The 53-year-old South Carolina native has won an Oscar, headlined her own TV drama (How to Get Away With Murder), and spent this entire century reeling off excellent supporting performances in other people’s movies: Solaris, The Help, Doubt, Get on Up, Fences. Here she radiates such steely authority that you don’t question why the other women fall in line behind Veronica despite her inexperience. This far-flung 129-minute film badly needs her presence and gravity at the center to keep from flying apart.

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Another thing that helps is McQueen’s ability to direct actors and prevent Davis’ castmates from being swallowed up. Michelle Rodriguez brings her own brand of toughness as a mother who’s seeing her dress shop be repossessed, while Elizabeth Debicki, who’s much taller than the other women in the cast, manages to use that quality to look exposed and vulnerable as a battered wife who’s reduced to working as an escort. Possibly best is Cynthia Erivo as an outsider who’s brought into the criminal plot as a driver and meets Veronica’s disapproval with a quiet, “Better watch how you talk to me.” A certain amount of wastage is built in here — bringing on someone like Neeson only to immediately kill him off is something a filmmaker does when he’s coming off a Best Picture Oscar win — but there is a tasty turn here by Daniel Kaluuya as a sadistic gangsta who enjoys toying with people before he kills them.

This is adapted from a 12-episode BBC miniseries from the 1980s, and McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn (better known for Gone Girl) stuff all manner of local color and backstory into this. Chicago is depicted as a cesspool where Jamal’s political scion opponent (Colin Farrell) acts every bit as much the thug, and a black pastor (James Vincent Meredith) preaches love while making clear to both candidates that his influential endorsement is for sale. The subplot involving the escort and a wealthy client (Lukas Haas) who wants to make her his exclusive armpiece doesn’t accomplish much. The same can be said for the white candidate’s interactions with his racist old dad (Robert Duvall), though at least the latter character plays into the main plot at the end. McQueen and Flynn are looking to create a crime thriller with the scale and complexity of Michael Mann’s Heat, and they don’t reach that plane.

That said, when I compare the poofy and underthought escapism of this past summer’s Ocean’s 8, I’ll take this balkier and darker creation that makes better use of its cast. Steve McQueen may never be suited to popcorn entertainment, but Widows yields some good things as he tries it out.

Widows

Starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Cynthia Erivo. Directed by Steve McQueen. Written by Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn, based on Lynda LaPlante’s TV series. Rated R.

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