Hunger. Shame. 12 Years a Slave. Films of harsh reality, brutal humanity and strict narrative management, from British filmmaker Steve McQueen. Nothing has changed with this latest entry in his filmography, Widows. Except this time, McQueen ventures a little more into the mainstream, with social commentary in the guise of entertainment. How does it fare? Well, one won’t be missing McQueen’s marriage to arthouse: this directorial widow has managed to craft an affair with explosive action and dramatic storytelling that rivals his best work.

Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Amanda (Carrie Coon) all uncover the same uncomfortable truth one night: their husbands, successful bank robbers, fall victim to a disastrous operation, resulting in their deaths. Through a revelation that their husbands owe brothers Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry) and Jatemme Manning (Daniel Kaluuya) money, Veronica and co. are forced into action, planning a heist that will hopefully settle their troubled pasts for good.

Widows is a film that lives and dies by its performances and its craft: luckily, both are polished to perfection. From Rififi to Heat and even this year’s Ocean’s 8, the heist film is well-covered ground. But unlike these films, Widows stands out simply because its cast is dedicated to delivering the fullest emotional spectrum. And Steve McQueen refuses to bow to the ongoing trend for simplistic, computer-generated action: socially relevant entertainment is his bow and he casts a mighty arrow that slices through the competition.

First off, to return to the cast, Davis and co. prove once and for all why it doesn’t take a man to sell an action sequence/narrative. Strong-willed, determined yet flawed, Veronica and her team are not superhuman plot points, but very real people with their own difficulties, their own traumas, all explored with succinct attention to detail by Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen’s screenplay. But it wouldn’t work without an assembly of stellar performances: fortunately, Davis proves once again why she’s our generation’s Meryl Streep and Debicki, Rodriguez and Coon deliver memorable moments in support.

Davis proves the ultimate highlight, her rich, steely glare breaking through to even the most resolute spectator. But a shout-out must be made to their male counterparts. Liam Neeson is solid as Davis’ deceased husband, who’s flashbacks prove essential to Davis’ development as a bereaved, solemn shade of her former self. However, credit must go to Kaluuya, who continues to impress since his star turn in Jordan Peele’s Get Out: he may have played the tragic hero in that horror masterwork, but here Kaluuya is let off the leash, playing a truly abhorrent fixer who’s methods range from the skin-crawling to the downright terroristic.

McQueen’s genius comes from his willingness to allow the actors at the heart of his film, the time to explore their broken characters. From lingering shots of Davis as she prepares for her husband’s funeral, to a long, brutal take involving Kaluuya, as we witness a touching moment turn sour courtesy of his villainous intervention, McQueen litters his picture with character-focused moments such as these to enrapture us: we feel the situation, the characters’ reactions to it. And it’s simply brilliant filmmaking.

That’s not to say that McQueen is done with making his own statement. From the impoverished surroundings, in contrast to the luxurious dwellings of a prospective politician, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) who stands at the centre of the plot, to the disputes of colour that affect numerous characters’ decisions, pushed to the line in order to survive, McQueen is still unafraid to stand tall as an artist, unhappy with the current state of social and political affairs. If 12 Years a Slave was a performative plea for empathy, then Widows is the fireworks display.

Widows is the culmination of a clear effort to tell an explosive story with real social and emotional stakes. With McQueen at the helm and his clever cast and crew in tow, Widows succeeds, whilst refusing to play by the book. From Sean Bobbitt’s long-take heavy cinematography to Hans Zimmer’s growling score, Widows is technically superior. And while it’s pace might linger a little too long at certain points in the plot, it’s only to flesh out its characters and key themes. From police brutality to sexist and racial tensions, Widows is still full McQueen, just on a level that doesn’t forget to let the audience have some fun.

Dir: Steve McQueen

Prd: Steve McQueen, Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Arnon Milchan

Scr: Gillian Flynn, Steve McQueen

Starring: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Carrie Coon, Colin Farrell, Liam Neeson

DOP: Sean Bobbitt

Editor: Joe Walker

Music: Hans Zimmer

Country: UK, USA

Runtime: 129 minutes