Playing like a badass big sister to the dizzy “Ocean’s 8,” this riveting thriller from director Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) fashions a female-driven heist from a heady intersection of violence, intimacy, political hypocrisy, patriarchy and power. With Gillian Flynn (“Sharp Objects,” “Gone Girl”) as co-writer, this drama almost makes you wish the duo had made it a premiere-network miniseries instead; it’s certainly got enough subplots to fill the time.
As it stands at just over two hours, though, this Chicago-based feature is a taut tale of women united in the aftermath of their husbands’ violent deaths in a crime bust turned fatal. As the film’s center, Viola Davis’ Veronica is left struggling to understand what the death of her husband, Harry (Liam Neeson), has wrought — though she was well aware of his less-than-above-board profession when he was alive. Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki play the other women left holding the bag by reckless, cruel men (we see Debicki’s Alice being taunted by her husband — Jon Bernthal — over the black eye he’s clearly given her on the morning before it all goes south).
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Meanwhile, a political brawl is playing out between two candidates for ward alderman: old-school scion Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and newcomer Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry of “Atlanta”), the latter of whom saw duffel bags full of suspect political funds — seemingly to support his candidacy — go up in flames along with the criminals.
In one scene set at the Fireside Bowl (one of Chicago’s finest dive bar/bowling alleys, and that’s saying something) Daniel Kaluuya, as Manning’s cousin and henchman, shows how far the family is willing to go to regain their dirty cash. It’s a far cry from Kaluuya’s nice-guy turn in “Get Out,” and he’s truly chilling as he kicks and stabs a man out of his wheelchair in a scene that reminded me of the pivotal “I drink your milkshake!” showdown in the 2007 epic “There Will Be Blood.” Robert Duvall also steals the show as Mulligan’s father, a dyed-in-the-wool racist and glad-hander who privately rages at his son, rather topically, against allowing brown people and women to get a foothold in the political world: “We made this city! This means staying in power at all costs!”
But the film belongs to (a splendid) Davis, Debicki, Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo, a baby sitter-turned-wheel woman who joins the team after the fourth widow (Carrie Coon) rather mysteriously declines.
Their plan to put into practice Harry’s intricately drawn plans to commit his next robbery, as protection from the Mannings and to free themselves from financial dependence, is a gritty romp that makes the cliché-prone heist genre feel fresh again. It runs far deeper than any “Ocean’s.”
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