At first, it looks all so familiar.

You know, the kind of movie where the bad guys do things that are so bad that the good guys have good reason to get even.

But this time around it’s not so simple. And, by the time Widows tells its story, Steve McQueen’s complex thriller makes sure we aren’t so certain who to applaud. The film thrives in the ambiguous world of right and wrong it so carefully develops.

Working from a screenplay co-written with Gillian Flynn, the author of Gone Girl, McQueen follows his Oscar-winning 12 Weeks a Slave with a fascinating study of what inspires people to commit serious crime. Without taking sides to debate the morality of his tale, McQueen refuses to waste a moment, or a glance, in telling a story with so many sides that it’s impossible to determine who is in the right. Or the wrong.

At first, the opening heist looks a lot like any opening heist from any crime thriller. But this one goes awry when, suddenly, the crime doesn’t follow the script, and four women are left waiting for their men to return home. When they suddenly find themselves on their own, with debts to pay from their husbands’ deeds, the widows begin to consider all the rational and irrational options they may have to settle the score. But life in crime thrillers is rarely as simple as plots initially suggest.

What makes the film so watchable is how McQueen carefully reveals its layers. We anticipate, with any thriller, a surprise here and there. But McQueen is too savvy to deliver surprises in obvious ways. Instead, he gives the characters time to develop their complexities, from the raw ambitions of a compromised politician, well essayed by Colin Farrell, or the synthetic regrets of his successful father, played by a well-seasoned Robert Duvall, or the sinister attacks initiated by the cynical hit man, strongly interpreted by Daniel Kaluuya.

And that’s the men. McQueen saves the richest roles, and the best moments, for the women, as he makes a subtle but clear shift to focus on the ladies the bad guys leave behind. Turning in an Oscar-worthy portrayal, Viola Davis shines as a woman trying to deal with lasting disappointment. With minimal dialogue, and maximum expression, Davis makes us believe, as with every performance, the back story that leads the character to choose. And while we may not immediately identify with the options this lady faces, we fully understand her pain because Davis enables us to connect with many emotional layers.

But this is not just Davis’ show. She is joined by three exceptional supporting players, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo, most recently on Broadway in The Color Purple, as McQueen studies how far people may tempt themselves to go, into dark shadows, to right the most lasting of wrongs.

There are no easy answers in Widows, no simple resolutions, no reasons to celebrate. But that’s not what Steve McQueen wants. Yes, this master director wants to entertain. And, most of all, he wants to make us think. About what any of us may be capable of doing.

Film Nutritional Value: Widows

  • Content: High. This complicated look at how people may choose to get even reminds us no matter how balanced someone may be, anyone can be pushed over the edge.

  • Entertainment: High. As the film explores the complications in the lives of these women, it engages our imaginations in what could actually happen.

  • Message: High. As director Steve McQueen creates his thriller, he makes us think about the assumptions we make about people we observe.

  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to see an entertaining movie is always relevant. Especially one that makes us think. But Widows is not a movie for the family.

  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. The movie offers an entertaining time at the movies for adults. But it’s not for kids.

Widows is rated R for violence, language throughout, and some sexual content/nudity. The film runs 2 hours, 9 minutes, and is showing at area theaters. For more on films, check out The Reel Dad online at 4 Popcorn Buckets. 

The Help showcases Viola Davis

Sometimes we need to be reminded how lucky we are.

Of course, any time we get to watch Viola Davis on screen, we are certainly lucky.

And as effectively as The Help showcases this marvelous actress, the film has a lot more on its mind than performances. This movie makes us think.

Yes, we may be fortunate enough to have food on the table every day and a warm bed to sleep in. But the comforts we may experience can separate us from the real issues others face. Only when we are openly curious about how others live can we learn how they think.

The Help recreates a time when the realities of the day dictated, in many places in the United States, how people of different races must serve others in an American dream that becomes more of a sentence than an opportunity. This film takes us inside the lives of women who only know one way to feed their families. All the society will enable them to do is to serve others without offering equal access to ordinary facilities and services. But they don’t give up. Holding them together is a belief that strong people can endure; their strength reminds us that quite resolve may be difficult to overcome.

The early 1960s were years of bitter hatred between races as the nation approached the historic passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Help reaches beyond its beautifully recreated 1960s aesthetic to boldly examine issues that defined racial tension some 50 years ago. While the movie does not try to be a definitive examination of the oppressed in the Old South, it reveals the inexcusable behavior that the Civil Rights legislation intended to change. But Southern homes are filled with carpets for many reasons, one of which is to have a convenient place to sweep issues that are uncomfortable to address.

In The Help we meet Skeeter, a young white woman with intelligence and fairness that reach beyond her synthetic background. When she returns to her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi (after failing her college assignment to land a husband) she stumbles on an idea for a book to, hopefully, impress an editor at a New York publishing house. Because she credits the care she received during her childhood from her family’s black maid — and resists repeating the pattern of treating black help as modern-day servants — she decides to tell the stories of how black maids serve white employers. What emerges, surprisingly, is a thoughtful catharsis for a community.

Such a framework gives writer/director Tate Taylor the foundation to ramble from character to character in a casual approach that works because Taylor is clever enough to surprise at many turns. The white women, despite their perfection in looks, are as human as the young mothers of any generation; the black women, despite their complex lives, consistently bring a humanity and humor to each chance to touch their friends and employers.

Sadly, we continue to experience unfair bias against people who dress and pray differently than many. The Help reminds us that people, not laws, determine fairness and opportunity. And when people are frightened, they look for any way, no matter how unfair, to protect themselves. This film reminds us, again, that one person’s protection may be another’s prison.

The Help, from 2011, is rated PG-13 for thematic material. It runs 2 hours, 26 minutes.