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Heist movies are often compelling because of their mechanics -- the thrill (and spectacle) of watching crooks dismantle a system, outsmart the law and escape with their lives, and bounty, intact. Steve McQueen’s “Widows” offers a lot of superficial window dressing to make his heist unique -- the fact that the would-be perpetrators are the wives of “real” thieves -- but what’s compelling, even riveting, about his film is not how they are pulling it off, but why.

Bolstered by an impressive ensemble including Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya, and Liam Neeson, “Widows” brings to irresistible life the determination, and desperation, of four women struggling to control their own fate within a system built upon, and preoccupied by, its own greed, corruption, and indifference.

Davis (“Fences”) plays Veronica Rawlins, a Chicago teacher’s union delegate whose life is thrown into disarray after her husband, Harry (Neeson), dies during a botched robbery -- one he staged with his colleagues Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Florek (Jon Bernthal), and Coburn (Jimmy Goss). Before she can begin to grieve, local crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) contacts her, demanding the money that Harry took, which he hopes will cushion his campaign for South Side alderman against incumbent Jack Mulligan (Farrell). But after retrieving Harry’s notebook, which contains the plans for his failed robbery, Veronica reaches out to the wives of his former partners -- Linda (Rodriguez), Alice (Debicki), and Amanda (Carrie Coon) -- enlisting them to complete the job and pay off Jamal.

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Though initially reluctant to participate, Linda and Alice quickly discover an aptitude for the kind of reconnaissance and deception needed to mount a robbery, while Veronica canvasses Mulligan, a friend of Harry’s, for help. But even as everything finally seems to come together--- hiring Belle, a resourceful babysitter, as driver after Veronica’s trusted chauffeur, Bash (Garret Dillahunt), suffers an attack at the hands of Jamal’s cold-blooded brother Jatemme (Kaluuya) -- the details of the heist, and the motives of the players involved, force them to confront new and uncomfortable elements of their individual pasts. They do so even as time rapidly approaches to launch a desperate plan intended to protect their collective futures.

Adapted with Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) from a British miniseries of the same name, McQueen condenses what was originally six hours of BBC television into a very dense 129 minutes, though you’re unlikely to feel that there’s anything missing. They not only conjure extraordinarily vivid portraits of all of the characters involved -- women and men, bad and good -- but provide a rich and detailed world that gave birth to or shaped their identities. Set in Chicago against the backdrop of one of its poverty-stricken boroughs, there’s automatically a divide between the haves and have-nots, but McQueen turns that dialectic into a pathology, and a commentary on the dynamic that continues to metastasize in contemporary American society.

Veronica lives comfortably in an apartment provided by Harry’s extracurricular exploits. But, after his death, she is left with nothing; none of it is in her name, and she is immediately reminded of her powerlessness by Jamal, who dreams of finding a legitimate role in his community but backslides into the criminality that made it financially possible for him to aspire to something greater. The always beautiful and obedient Linda was raised in an atmosphere of domestic violence, but soon discovers that there’s power in people underestimating her. And Belle, literally running from one job to the next, stumbles across the moneymaking opportunity of a lifetime -- the one for which she’s inadvertently been preparing her whole adult life.

Davis brings polished, flinty resolve to Veronica’s plight, concealing her grief behind immaculate presentation of her clothes and lifestyle to the world, not to mention a fluffy little dog that accompanies her everywhere. McQueen lets her be sexy, vulnerable, tough and unlikeable, often simultaneously, and you can feel Davis’ already-sophisticated faculties as an actress flexing with a freedom she hasn’t experienced before.

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Debicki seems to deliver one “star-making” performance after another, but here she transforms in a really profound way that isn’t merely a byproduct of playing a women who chooses not to be a victim. She literally towers over her co-stars (she’s 6’3”), but she carries a feverish, improvisational energy and commands the screen with utter believability. Erivo is another standout as Belle, tougher and more fearless than any of the women to whom she’s meant to prove herself.

But Kaluuya creates a singular sort of menace felt even when he’s not on screen as Jatemme, a person indoctrinated to not feel and not care about anything except his own needs and goals -- and his brother’s. He is willing to stop at nothing, and do anything, to accomplish them.

McQueen’s movies have long since explored the deeper roots of what makes us work -- and not work -- as a society, which may be why the film’s central robbery feels like sleight of hand. By the time it goes down, we care more about the characters at the center of this story and how they will survive than whether the machinery of their plans comes easily together. Working with longtime cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, McQueen delivers the visceral thrills of criminality, but always injects them with the greater cultural and emotional dimensions of people in a world where it feels necessary, or justified.

Ultimately, McQueen’s latest certainly joins the ranks of films like “Heat” and “The Usual Suspects” in terms of its intelligence, intensity and complexity, but its goals are different than most heist movies, as is its success. As the best entries in the subgenre tend to build to some sort of climactic showdown and a quick getaway, “Widows” lingers in the messy, relatable humanity of the perpetrators, it cares why they are committing their crimes, and it examines what it means -- not just financially, but emotionally -- if they succeed.