In the press notes for Windfall, the latest film from The One I Love and The Discovery director Charlie McDowell, the film is described as Hitchcockian. I even used that word in an earlier write-up on it, based on the released footage. And that is true about it; the tense orchestral music and the title font suggest a classic style noir. But it’s only for a short time that it sticks to that level of tension, as the film, an examination of a rocky marriage, classism, greed, and a home invasion gone wrong, takes on the loose structure of a black comedy along the lines of Funny Games. Fortunately, McDowell proves just as effective at one as he is the other, and certainly his trio of stars are more than capable.
When the cast is led by Jason Segel, Jesse Plemons, and Lily Collins, you know there’s little these three can’t handle. Windfall is a lot like McDowell’s previous films in that it seems simple on the surface, but grows in complexity and sticks with you for the long haul. From the moment we meet Jason Segel’s character, identified simply as Nobody, we think we’ve got him pegged. He’s broken into the vacation home of wealthy CEO (Plemons) while he and his wife (Collins) are away. Nobody takes his time in there, enjoying this small taste of what the good life must be like. He looks lost, almost homeless, like he’s got nothing left but to haunt the homes of others like a ghost. He meanders, until the CEO and his wife come home, and try as he might, Nobody gets spotted.
Nobody takes them hostage but, what’s fascinating about Windfall is that he’s like the worst criminal ever. Not in that he’s an incompetent boob or anything; just that he practically has to be instructed on how to rob the very people he’s trying to rob. It’s the CEO who pretty much encourages him to ask for a ransom, which he and his wife then laugh over the small amount he’s demanding. CEO is sure this is about some petty grievance, like maybe Nobody is a fired ex-employee or something. Plemons, so good when he wants to at playing prickish, entitled a-holes or just flat-out creeps, makes CEO a contemptible figure right from the start. He lashes out at his assistant for minor errors, and dismisses the plight of those less privileged than him, without recognizing that also includes his wife. That cracks begin to form in their marriage isn’t a surprise. They say that adversity introduces a man to himself, but it also exposes him to others. The man she married might not be who she thought he was.
Penned by Andrew Kevin Walker and Justin Lader, the nimble screenplay never keeps its focus on any one character for long. One of the things it does really well is force us to question where our loyalties should lie. Nobody is committing a crime and looking to get something for nothing, but the CEO, who repeatedly points out this fact and suggests his captor’s laziness, is just such a horrible human being even though he is basically the victim. Collins’ wife character is our conduit to all of this; she observes the weaknesses in both men and finds sympathies in both. She also finds reason to hate them both, like how CEO keeps putting her in jeopardy just so he can prove a point.
Missing is that tight claustrophobic feeling that any good contained thriller should have, even though the action largely takes place in one location.The shape of a conclusion, in which Nobody is given his money and he leaves, is established pretty early on but it’s a comedy of errors from that point. Coming up with new ways to stall such an easy transaction does get silly after a while, and at times it does get tiresome as the film works overtime to make these characters discuss the film’s core themes and provide insight. Dramatic stakes and any real sense of danger go out the window, but the interactions are funny with Plemons playing one of those people you just love to hate.
Those who let the humor lower their defenses will be stunned by a surprisingly brutal finale that is teased wonderfully from the start. One of those movies that, years from now, we’ll look at and know it was made during the pandemic, Windfall is lean, provocative, and made richer by the wealth of talent in front and behind the camera.
Windfall is available now on Netflix.