Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"Recent Hollywood heist films - typified by the Ocean's franchise - have been largely concerned with shiny surfaces, gloss and froth but British director Steve McQueen is much more interested in what lies beneath." | Photo: 20th Century Fox

Recent Hollywood heist films - typified by the Ocean's franchise - have been largely concerned with shiny surfaces, gloss and froth but British director Steve McQueen is much more interested in what lies beneath in his gritty, gripping addition to the genre. There are plenty of thrills and twisty plot points, but the script, co-written by Gone Girl's Gillian Flynn, also has plenty to say about class, corruption, misogyny and race along the way.

The action of Lynda La Plante's 1980s TV thriller is transported from the streets of London to modern-day Chicago, where crime has its claws in politics. It's here that we meet Veronica Rawlings (Viola Davis) and her husband Harry (Liam Neeson), watching tender moments between the two intercut with his latest heist going south with an unexpected and deadly bang. As set-ups go, you could certainly do a lot worse than snogging and shooting and McQueen's smooth and effortless handling of more than one situation simultaneously is one of the hallmarks of the film. He's like one of those old-fashioned music hall plate spinners - except that you never feel like he's so much as breaking a sweat, effortlessly keeping multiple character studies and narrative elements in the air at the same time.

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As we watch their criminal husbands race to doom alongside Harry, we also meet Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), whose black eye tells the story of her relationship and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), whose dress business is under threat thanks to her other half's gambling ways. Veronica, smacked by the juggernaut of grief, may think it's the end of the world, but perhaps what is worse for her is that it isn't.

Instead, she's about to discover that, with nobody to turn to except her husband's driver (Garret Dillahunt, notable in a small role), she's in big trouble with local criminal kingpin Jamal (Brian Tyree Henry). He wants the $2 million he says Harry stole from him, and fast and is happy to let his younger, trigger happy brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) lose if she doesn't deliver.

The only thing Veronica has is a book Harry left her, outlining plans for his next job - although frustratingly for her not naming the target - and out of desperation, she enlists the unlikely help of Alice and Linda in a bid to carry it off. How this connects to Jamal's move into politics and his rivalry with white elder statesman Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall) and his slick son Jack (Colin Farrell), who treat the city's alderman position as though it were an inherited fiefdom, only becomes apparent as the film progresses but as the pieces start to slot into place it's clear they have been well-tooled.

The heist, however, is only the half of it, with the women's fight for survival the crux of the thing. There's a sense of the whole city being trapped in circumstance - even the oleaginous Jack. As one character says: "No matter how much you change. It makes no difference", while another insists: "You're not going to change anything". The question becomes, can these women change themselves enough to beat the odds in a place geared to retaining the status quo?

It's a given that we root for people in these sort of situations but the stakes feel frighteningly and realistically high. Jatemme is a lover of casual violence and we're also reminded in one shocking scene, with Obama Hope posters ironically hanging in the background, that even doing nothing wrong is no guarantee you won't catch a bullet. This last moment is just one of many asides that speaks to the world away from the main characters and which asks questions about culturally ingrained racism, sexism and economics that never normally make it into this sort of movie in the modern era.

McQueen's skill is matched by the top-notch cast. Davis has a steely brilliance as Veronica, a woman buffeted by fate who refuses to be cowed, while Debicki gets to show a light touch in the more comedic, though no less heartfelt, of the main female roles. It's just as well they're so good or Cynthia Erivo, as a hairdresser and babysitter drafted in to help at the last moment, would steal the film from under them with her intense and muscular performance. Rodriguez's character may be the most thinly drawn of the four leads, but every single life here, right down to the smallest roles, including Alice's unpleasant mother (Jacqui Weaver) and her pay-you-for-a-good-time new squeeze (Lukas Haas) feels lived in and grounded in reality.

When you look at all the plot and subplots, character arcs and emotional whammies, it seems like a big job to pull off - but McQueen doesn't just get away with it, he proves to be a mastermind.

Reviewed on: 09 Nov 2018
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Women left in debt by their dead husbands' crimes conspire to pull off a heist.
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Director: Steve McQueen

Writer: Gillian Flynn, Steve McQueen, Lynda La Plante

Starring: Carrie Coon, Elizabeth Debicki, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Jon Bernthal, Michelle Rodriguez, Robert Duvall, Garret Dillahunt, Viola Davis, Daniel Kaluuya, Lukas Haas, Jacki Weaver, Brian Tyree Henry, Kevin J. O'Connor, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo

Year: 2018

Runtime: 128 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK, US

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