A film review by Craig J. Koban March 27, 2022

WINDFALL jjj
  

2022, Unrated, 92 mins. Collins

Jesse Plemons as CEO  /  Jason Segel as Nobody  /  Lilly Collins as Wife

Directed by Charlie McDowell  /  Written by Justin Lader and Andrew Kevin Walker

ORIGINAL FILM

I'm a sucker for minimalist psychological thrillers, and the new Netflix produced WINDFALL is about as simple and economical as they come.  

This Charlie McDowell directed affair involves a desperate man breaking into the remote vacation home of a famous and wealthy tech billionaire, leading to him holding said businessman and his wife hostage when his break and enter goes south pretty fast. With a fairly taut screenplay by Justin Lader and Andrew Kevin Walker (the latter who most famously penned films like SEVEN, SLEEPY HOLLOW, and the underrated 8MM), WINDFALL plays very much like a self contained, three actor stage play that gets a lot of creative mileage out of its mostly one setting locale as well as the solid and complex power play character dynamics that develops between these three souls.  It builds to a fairly great crescendo, only to sort of disappointingly flatline in a finale that doesn't completely work, but the richly delineated performances from the cast really helps seal the deal. 

WINDFALL has a wonderfully quiet, dialogue-free opening sequence - roughly ten minutes - that introduces us to a man (Jason Segal) casually enjoying the sunny weather in what appears to be remote California.  He grabs and eats an orange off of a tree, he rests and relaxes on one of the outdoor patio chairs, and then decides to migrate into a lavish home...and it's at this point when things get a bit weird.  The man seems oddly infatuated with his indoor surroundings and stumbles his way through various rooms.  Then he flagrantly breaks a glass that he was drinking out of...then goes into the bathroom and abruptly urinates in the shower...and then proceeds to ransack the place of its money and jewelry.  It becomes abundantly clear that this guy isn't the owner of the dwelling, but rather a nobody burglar (the screenplay credits this character as Nobody) that's only interested in taking whatever he can pocket and then fleeing the scene. 

Just as Nobody is about to make a clean break, the actual homeowner couple abruptly returns to spoil his thieving party: They are (screenplay accredited) Wife (Lilly Collins) and CEO (Jesse Plemons).  The pair hope that their pilgrimage to this home out in the middle of nowhere and away from everything and everybody will give them some much needed de-stressing downtime, but when they discover Nobody prowling around he quickly takes the couple hostage within their own home.  Nobody is not the swiftest of criminal minds and obviously has not thought his robbery through all that well (like, for instance, not noticing until the last minute that the property contains surveillance cameras...which is problematic because he's unmasked).  Fearing that he may or may not have been recorded during his break-in, Nobody begins a desperate attempt at negotiating a ransom fee of half a million dollars from the affluent CEO, but even a powerful man of industry like him can't secure such an amount at the drop of a hat.  The earliest that he can get that sum dropped off is a day, which means that Nobody has to keep a watchful eye on this couple until at least the next afternoon, complicating his life immensely. 

 

 

WINDFALL - right from its tastefully rendered and stylish opening title card sequence - seems to chiefly evoke classic thrillers of yesteryear while trying to carve out a creative path uniquely its own.  There have been many films in the past that, yes, feature a small number of characters finding themselves trapped within a limited setting (or hostage situation) that involves the parties trying to assume ultimate control over each other, and WINDFALL is definitely no different in this regard.  Aesthetically, though, McDowell (husband to Collins) manages to craft his film in loving wide shots and carefully orchestrated long takes that gives the film a strong evocation of a stage play while feeling cinematic all the same.  In terms of pure technique, it takes a filmmaker that knows what he wants (and knows what he's doing) to generate ample visual interest in his limited surroundings and foster decent forward narrative momentum, and McDowell does that here for the most part.  WINDFALL doesn't get too hyper stylized to the point of becoming distracting, nor is it lacking in any discernible style to the point of slowing things down to a snail's pace.  Thankfully, the film is also a lean and mean 90-plus minutes, which is an appropriate length considering the inherent limitations of the premise and storytelling. 

And the longer the film progresses the more interesting the character arcs become.  Nobody isn't portrayed as a bubbling moron, but he's not surefooted nor completely bright when it comes to his crime spree itself, and some of the macabre humor to be had in WINDFALL is in seeing this poor sap assessing his situation and plotting his next move with this couple...even if his next moves aren't that well conceived.  Both Nobody and the couple are respectively trying to plot an exit strategy out of this house, which becomes more difficult for them when Nobody finds a random gun in one of the rooms, giving him a dominating edge.  Still, these three people have a tense evening to kill until the next morning and potential money drop to end this dire situation, and they do everything from watching old movies to having conversations that grow increasingly personal.  All of the parties have their own insecurities - in one form or another - that they hope to use as leverage to get out of this pickle of a scenario.   

The CEO of this narrative is clearly a Mark Zuckerberg stand-in, a person that's so disgustingly wealthy that he really doesn't know precisely how much he's worth.  He's also an abrasively arrogant man that thinks the entire business world is against him ("I wake up every day with a target on my back!"); you literally want Nobody, at times, to kick the living tar out of him.  Part of CEO's narcissism is his belief that he's the most intelligent person in this nightmare predicament; he attempts to one-up Nobody by playing mental mind games to give him the upper hand.  Plemons is stellar at playing this egomaniacal corporate heavyweight, but one weak area of the film is its portrayal of the pertinent class warfare that's clearly on display between him and Nobody; it's a bit too on the nose and black and white.  The intruder thinks that this CEO has amassed a fortune through nefarious means (making him the de facto enemy of the people, in his mind), whereas the CEO is such a pompous elitist that he can't believe that this lowly hoodlum is robbing a man of his stature.  I think that the foundations of a thoroughly compelling dissection of the halves and have nots are rooted into the screenplay here, but it never seems to tap into the dark underbelly of the class-rage themes all that well.  As a rumination on how billionaires and people of limitless privilege foster empires at the expense of those lower on the economic ladder, WINDFALL kind of falls flat.  It wants to say a lot about these timely themes, but never seems equal to the task. 

Wonky social commentary aside, the film also culminates with a messy finale and would-be shocking twist of fate that I don't think the story completely earns.  Saving WINDFALL, however, is the actors, and on top of Plemons we have the wonderfully atypical casting of Segal (normally known for comedic roles), who gets to sink his teeth into a fidgety man teeth-clenched anxiety that could blow at any waking moment.  Collins is also good in this wife role that could have been rendered so one-note, but instead is afforded more depth and layers than I was frankly expecting.  And even though the climax is pretty jarring and makes a somewhat hard to swallow 180 degree turn towards something truly haunting, I enjoyed the journey of WINDFALL building up to it and what a delicious slow-burn, cat and mouse home invasion thriller that McDowell has engineered here, and one that mixes tension with comic absurdity with surprising fluidity.  

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