It only takes a short while for Widows to prove to us that we're in good hands. In point of fact, it takes until the very first cut, and the first cut comes rather sooner than we expect it to. Which is, in fact, part of how it shows us we're in good hands - it has a certain "I will be showing you things that are better than you could imagine, all the time" vibe to it. I almost don't want to talk about that first cut; I almost don't want to talk about Widows at all, and instead just say "it is absolutely imperative that you see Widows" and consider that my noble act for the day, but this is a film criticism site, so I guess I had better criticise some film.

Anyway, the first shot is a close-up of a married couple, the Rawlings, in bed - Victoria (Viola Davis) and Harry (Liam Neeson), just making out with great ardor and a rather unmistakable amount of unsimulated tongue. And just right as Harry bites at Victoria's chin with a playful little "rawr!" the film cuts to a wide shot from inside the back of a speeding van with one door hanging open, full of the noise of a grinding engine, squealing tires, gunshots, and Harry screaming orders. It's sudden and shocking and feels like a violation of the sweet silliness of the first shot, which is of course the point. Plus, it introduces us to what will be the aesthetic highlight of a film with many contenders for an aesthetic highlight: the sound mixing is fucking glorious in this movie, screeching from quiet to raging hellish noise, and layering in that noise so acutely that every single bit of the soundtrack is perfectly legible, creating an intensely heightened, queasily subjective sound universe in which everything is violent and cruel. Kudos to supervising sound editors Paul Cotterell and James Harrison, to production sound mixer Alex Riordan, to post sound mixer Scott D. Smith, and to sound effects designer Eilam Hoffman, and their crews; they have made 2018's best-sounding film by far, and 2018 has had some really nice-sounding movies.

Anyway between the tongue-kissing and the shock of the cut and the disorienting visual of seeing the world fly as the camera remains locked to the floor of the truck and the landscape careens around, it takes very little time to realise that yep, we have in front of us a Steve McQueen film. And by all measures, the most friendly and jolly of McQueen's four features to date, which is a very low bar to clear for the director of Hunger (about starving oneself to death as political protest), Shame (about sex addiction) and 12 Years a Slave (about chattel slavery in the antebellum American South). And in point of fact, if I called Widows "fun" and you believed me, you would have good cause to feel very ill-used. Though by McQueen standards, it is fun - it even has jokes. Funny ones.

In fact, Widows is ultimately a heist movie, if we had to pick the most prominent of its several plot tendrils. As adapted from a 1983 British miniseries, the story goes that four men, led by Harry, were career thieves who ended up on a job gone wrong, and now they're all dead. But the explosion that killed them also burned $2 million belonging to Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), an African-American crime boss operating out of the South Side of Chicago, who has lately decided to polish his image by running for alderman of the city's 18th Ward, opposing the son of that ward's longest-standing political dynasty, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell). Mulligan, for his part, doesn't even want the job, but he's damned if he'll let it leave the family, especially while his awful, simply awful father, retiring alderman Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall) is constantly screaming at him. But back to Manning, whose desire to turn legit goes precisely as far as siccing his psychopathic brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) on Victoria. With no other options, Victoria manages to track down Harry's notebook of crimes, discovering that at the time of his death, he had a $5 million heist planned. And so she finds the other widows of Harry's dead accomplices, Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki), and together they decide to complete that one last job, pay off Manning, and get out from under the suffocating debt they've all been left with thanks to their shitty, dead spouses.

Anyway, that gives us enough to go on. The script, by McQueen and Gillian Flynn, is reasonably straightforward (there's only one major twist and maybe two minor twists, and the major twist is mostly left humming in the background after it happens), focusing instead on sheer quantity to wow us. At an absolute minimum, Widows wants to talk about the incredibly entrenched political corruption of Chicago, a city where having two outright moral monsters running against each other for office is absolutely the commonest thing you could imagine; the crisis of gentrification and systemic racism in major American cities; and especially the impossibility of being a woman in a world where literally every single humane male is some manner of savage animal, and they control all the money. In one of the best uses of sound in the whole film, a character runs flat-out to catch a bus, and the space around her fills with a cacophony of unseen men catcalling at her, creating an aural nightmare that's far more discomfiting to the viewer than it seems to be for her.

This is all on top of the fact that Widows is simply an ace thriller, presenting the business of desperate amateurs assembling a dangerous heist with a burly, growling nastiness that would make the toughest, most sinewy of films noirs snarl in admiration. Without going into it, the heist itself instantly leaps to the list of the great examples of that genre fixture, between the raging noise (amplified by the voice distortion masks the women all wear), the sharp twists and turns of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt's camera, and the steady, angry beat of Hans Zimmer's terrific score. It's exhilarating and scary and exhausting; the man sitting to my left in the theater where I saw it was audibly panting for a good minute after the heist was over.

This makes perfect sense: it's what happens when a nominal crowd-pleaser (and the crowd I saw it with was pleased, as was I) get made by a director whose thing, in all three of his movies, has been to depict the most intense physical experiences possible and do so with a directness and lack of distancing adornment that makes the movies feel so visceral it almost hurts to watch them. There's no shortage of that in Widows: besides its amazing opening and its amazing heist, probably my favorite moment comes when Jatemme forces a couple of low-level henchmen who've fucked up to complete the freestyle rap they were playing at when he found them: the camera circles around them at high speed as Kaluuya presses his head right in between them and stares with his unnervingly large eyes, and the overall effect is just too fucking stimulating, enough to make every nerve in my body feel like it was being whacked with a tuning fork - and then when the camera stops moving, it's so sharp and unexpected that the lack of movement is somehow even worse.

It's a vicious, hard film in a lot of ways like that, all about how arbitrarily mean life can be. The sociology in the screenplay is damnably precise - especially the lacerating depiction of the fundamentally poisonous nature of Chicago politics, and the evil, evil fuckers who get involved (it also captures Chicago on film just about as well as I've ever seen it captured) - and the characters are sketched out quickly but deeply. The film plays a neat trick with that aforementioned twist: it's so disappointing and unpleasant that it almost struck me as lazy, contrived writing of the most pointlessly generic sort (and I still wonder if the film might not be better without it), but then it ignores it, only bringing it back at the exact point that the character most directly affected by it has to finally confront how shitty and disappointing and unpleasant life itself is, so that the vaguely clumsy nature of the twist itself becomes a way of making the film more subjective.

The cast is without exception superb; even the most apparent weak link, Farrell's accent, is implied to be a bit of a put-on, given the way he allows it to collapse into a more nasal grumble when he's not "on" as a politician. It's hard for me to point to anybody but Kaluuya as the best in show, but there's a huge amount of pleasure to watch as every last cast member brings their A-game; Davis starts the film off with a primal scream and thereafter locks herself into a hardness that, as the film progresses, drags her body and face and voice down like her personal gravity is twice as strong as everybody else's, and it's incredible to see an actor like Rodriguez manage to go head-to-head with that much Viola Davis gravitas. There are things I don't love: the fourth criminal, played by Cynthia Erivo, is given far too little to do and a smudgier backstory than almost anyone else, and Alice's mother (played with trollish fury by Jacki Weaver, the great specialist in shitty, toxic mothers) just kind of falls out of the movie at a certain point.

But the lumps here and there are effortlessly outweighed by the strengths: the sheer droning intensity of the thriller sequences, the sudden wanton violence (a lot of slapping in this movie), the chaos of the soundscape and the tight, mathetmatic closeness of the music. It's both exciting and terrifying, and enormously intelligent in addition to being strongly emotional. God help me, but I might even be willing to call it McQueen's best film - might, you understand, but given where he's gone prior to this, even might is a hell of a grand thing.