Widows is the Oscar-worthy movie Viola Davis deserves and America needs

Widows is a new heist movie featuring a remarkable ensemble directed by Steve McQueen. Eli Glasner says the film about a group of women in city riven with crime and corruption is a must see.

Working with writer Gillian Flynn, director Steve McQueen creates a heist film for the ages

Viola Davis stars as Veronica in Widows, the latest film from director Steve McQueen (20th Century Fox)

Steve McQueen is a director who fixes the audience's gaze on uncomfortable truths.

He did it five years ago with his Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave, a stunning indictment of the all-too human cost of slavery.

Now he's turned his gaze to America today.

His inspiration: Widows — a British TV series from 1983 about a group of women who lose their husbands but find plans for a robbery.

Watch the film's trailer: 

At the Toronto International Film Festival, McQueen told CBC News he identified with the women of the show. Women who he said "were not deemed to be capable, who were judged on their appearance," similar to how he felt as a 13-year-old black boy growing up in London.

Working with Gone Girl novelist and screenwriter Gillian Flynn, they relocated the action to modern day Chicago. In the new film, four wives led by Viola Davis discover a heist-gone-wrong has created a situation where they owe a dangerous politician millions.

With McQueen's earlier films, Shame and Hunger, there was an uncompromising quality to what he asked audiences to endure. But with Flynn as his co-writer, McQueen softens the blow with a punch of a plot, inviting audiences onto a roller coaster where they gasp one moment and cheer the next.  

Worlds apart

As the four women come to terms with their fate, they're forced to rise to the occasion, quickly finding the courage and skills for an audacious crime. But McQueen widens the view, painting a portrait of a divided city in Scorsese-ian tableaus of crime and corruption. 

At the top of the privilege pyramid are Colin Farrell and Robert Duvall as politicians Jack and Tom Mulligan. Duvall is the the old guard of a racist political dynasty trying to hang on. Farrell plays his ambitious son. Their few scenes together hint at a relationship filled with bitterness and bile.

Edging in on the Mulligan territory is Bryan Tyree Henry as Jamal Manning. Jamal positions himself as the people's savior, but his brother — played by an ice-cold Daniel Kaluyaa — shows what the Mannings are willing to do to knock the Mulligans off their perch.

From left to right Daneil Kaluuya and Brian Tyree Henry play brothers Jamal Manning and Jatemme Manning. One is an ice-cold killer, the other an ex-criminal with political aspirations. (20th Century Fox)

From society dinners, to church potlucks, Widows adeptly captures the uneven mosaic that makes up Chicago. As Flynn told CBC News Widows captures the idea that, "We live in so many different bubbles today and you could live in your own different space and never meet someone outside of it."

McQueen visualizes that notion as audiences watch Jack Mulligan finish a political rally and drive from a rundown part of the city to his upscale election headquarters.

Sean Bobbit, the cinematographer who's worked with McQueen from the beginning, captures the journey in a single shot of a limo's exterior — the reflections on the tinted window of liquor stores and abandoned buildings quickly giving way to plush urban estates — a few blocks away but worlds apart.

'Animal instinct'

In any other film, actors such as Daniel Kaluuya and Colin Farrell would be the main attraction. But for Widows they're just the window dressing. The true engine of the film is Viola Davis, who at 53 is finally getting roles worthy of her talents. With a glare capable of stopping time, she plays Veronica who marshals the women together spitting out the line, "No one thinks we have the balls to pull this off."

Best known for her intensity on the TV show How to Get Away With MurderDavis told CBC News working with director Steve McQueen challenged her. She said McQueen pushed her to be more vulnerable and feminine, as viewers see in the tender opening moments with her husband played by Liam Neeson.

Colin Farrell stars as Jack Mulligan, a politican trying to escape his father's shadow. (20th Century Fox)

Davis is currently riding a wave of success, but to play Veronica, she drew on her early days, growing up poor in Rhode Island. She said she remembers going into the grocery story, "and you see all of that food on the shelf and you haven't eaten since I don't know when, trust me you start thinking of criminality ... it's that animal instinct to survive."

Like any heist film, each of the four characters, Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Broadway star Cynthia Erivo are responsible for part of the plan. Typically in caper films such as Ocean's Eleven, the satisfaction comes from  watching the pieces click into place. What makes Widows remarkable is how it makes clear the true cost of each piece. 

Viola Davis, known for her fiery performances, shows a tender side in moments with her husband played by Liam Neeson. (20th Century Fox)

Steve McQueen has said part of what inspired him to make Widows, was that after 12 Years a Slave he noticed how many talented female actors weren't working. 

By giving Rodriguez, Davis, Debicki and Erivo characters worthy of their talents, McQueen has made one of the most vital films of the year. A movie that sees America in all its fractured fury. 

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.