'Widows' is a heist thriller unlike any other — making its Oscar prospects uncertain

Viola Davis is in the Oscar conversation again for her turn in "Widows," which had its world premiere Saturday at the Toronto Film Festival. (Merrick Morton / Twentieth Century Fox)

If 20th Century Fox isn’t entirely sure at this very moment how to play the Oscar campaign for Steve McQueen’s heist thriller “Widows,” it’s because there has never been a heist thriller like “Widows.”

And that’s precisely why it should be in the thick of the conversation this awards season.

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“Widows,” which had its world premiere Saturday night at the Toronto Film Festival, is ostensibly about a group of women, led by Viola Davis, carrying out a robbery that their husbands planned but never completed. (The film’s title betrays the reason why.)

But in taking the premise of a 1980s British television crime drama, McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) have as much, if not more, interest in the societal forces that propel the women toward this desperate course of action. It’s about toxic men, a broken political system and a world in which anything — and anyone — can be bought and sold and the emptiness embedded in that kind of transactional culture.

“I want my kids to know that I just didn’t sit here and take it” is how one of the widows, played by Michelle Rodriguez, puts it. These women have had their fill of men offering a nice life — provided they get to dictate the terms. Rebelling against that starts from a place of self-interest and evolves — without it being explicitly stated — into respect and love.

Which isn’t to say that “Widows” doesn’t possess gasp-inducing plot twists and bone-rattling action. McQueen’s last movie, “12 Years a Slave,” won the Oscar for best picture and, taken with “Hunger” and “Shame,” he has shown he can do anything as a filmmaker. That McQueen can pull off a white-knuckle car chase and the intricacies of a heist should surprise no one.

Fox hopes to sell these audience-friendly elements of the movie and turn “Widows,” which opens Nov. 16, into a commercial hit.

And, in speaking to sources close to the studio and the film, that’s the genesis of the film’s awards season campaign. Where to take it from there is still being debated. Davis’ lead turn, commanding and also achingly vulnerable, should find plenty of fans among voters, though the lead actress category is once again packed with powerful contenders.

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Daniel Kaluuya, left, and Brian Tyree Henry are among the killer ensemble cast of "Widows." (Twentieth Century Fox)

One of the film’s many strengths is its deep ensemble, which includes well-known men such as Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Daniel Kaluuya, Brian Tyree Henry and Liam Neeson, as well as Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo and Elizabeth Debicki playing Davis’ partners in crime. (The Australian actress Debicki, who has the most screen time, is a particular standout.)

Given its size, a SAG Awards ensemble nod is a possibility (SAG voters love sprawling groups), though, again, the “Widows” troupe will have to contend with the likes of “Roma” (which just won the Golden Lion at Venice), the space drama “First Man,” Bradley Cooper’s popular remake of “A Star Is Born” and the daring costume tragicomedy “The Favourite,” which won two prizes at Venice.

That kind of competition explains why, for the time being, the awards consultants working on “Widows” are focusing on making the movie a commercial hit with the hopes that box-office momentum will elevate its status to a place where voters take notice. That strategy, in part, worked well for Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” another crime thriller made by an acclaimed director.

“It’s been a long ride,” McQueen said Saturday, introducing the film at its premiere. “Thank God I now have an audience.”

The eventual size of that audience could well determine how far “Widows” goes this awards season.

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