Earlier this year, Ocean’s 8 gave us a female-fronted heist story that was as frothy and fun as a champagne brunch in the middle of May. At least, that’s what it feels like compared to the riveting and razor-sharp Widows, an explosive collaboration between 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen and Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn.

In fact, “female-fronted heist story” are the only words both films have in common, and it may be unfair to utter the two titles under the same breath. While one is the epitome of delightful summer fare (with a killer wardrobe for Cate Blanchett), the other is a prime example of intelligent, impactful drama for grown-ups that not only taps into the zeitgeist, it holds a mirror up to it and dissects the sociopolitical and socioeconomic problems that continue to challenge American society two decades into the 21st century. And it features the best big-screen ensemble in recent memory.

Widows, a remake of an 80s British miniseries of the same name, is more than just another heist film. It’s so richly layered and skillfully assembled with so many puzzle pieces, nothing ever gets lost in the shuffle, and that is a testament to the talented and meticulous McQueen and Flynn.

It’s also an embarrassment of casting riches. The ever-solid Viola Davis is front and center as Veronica, the wife of a high-profile thief (Liam Neeson) who is killed along with the rest of his cohorts (Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Coburn Goss) during an operation gone awry. After being threatened by corrupt city council candidate Jamal Manning (Atlanta‘s Brian Tyree Henry), who is looking for the $2 million Harry stole from him, Veronica recruits grieving wives Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) to help her carry out Harry’s next heist. The discovery of a notebook detailing Harry’s next target puts them in the path of Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), Manning’s political rival and son of incumbent Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall). Meanwhile, there’s the fantastic Daniel Kaluuya as Manning’s menacing brother Jatemme, Carrie Coon as Amanda, a fourth widow and new mother who figures into the Byzantine plot, Cynthia Erivo (a standout from last month’s Bad Times at the El Royale) as a babysitter named Belle whose financial plight plugs her into the equation, Garret Dillahunt as Veronica’s driver who gets caught in the crosshairs, and a surprisingly slick Lukas Haas as a real estate exec who woos Alice — when she’s not being emotionally abused by her mother (Jacki Weaver, making an all too brief but welcome appearance).

As for the women who are thrust into this criminal world, Davis, Debicki, and Rodriguez excel at carrying the emotional (and moral) weight of the entire film — much like the extra-large backpacks they have to haul during a climactic sequence. (Debicki, not to mention, is a revelation here.) However, their story isn’t one of female empowerment. Their story powerfully represents the desperation people succumb to and the actions they take out of pure, unadulterated necessity. “There’s an oversimplification of women’s relationships on screen,” Davis told Entertainment Weekly, “and that’s another way of sort of diminishing our complexity.” The opposite of that notion is clearly and brilliantly conveyed in the film. In fact, Widows transcends the tropes of the genre and is an electric jolt to the pantheon of crime films that came before it.

McQueen has proven himself as a master storyteller, embedding the action in a Chicago rarely explored on film and diving deep into the machinations of its mean streets. “It’s a city which is basically cut up into all different sorts of ethnicities,” the Oscar-winning director told EW. “And within that is the religious aspect as well as the political aspect, the criminal aspect, and the police.” At one point, the camera follows a politician’s car through several neighborhoods in one continuous shot as we eavesdrop on a backseat conversation. It is a transition that speaks volumes to the themes of the film.

Widows is tight, tense, and tricked-out with twists that are never contrived. It is also a manifesto for the demise of the American dream, a visceral achievement.

@TheFirstEcho