'Windfall' is a satisfying, well-acted thriller that lives up to its clever premise
Windfall is not shy about its aspirations to be a throwback. The opening titles come up over a static shot of a curtain blowing across one open French door off the courtyard of a luxury home. They come in an art deco font — and when they reach the word Windfall, it's in quotation marks and accompanied by a sudden, tense chord. The quotation marks are right out of Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz, and that crashing chord over the title recalls the openings of Hitchcock movies including Vertigo and Dial M for Murder.
The film is directed by Charlie McDowell — who got solid notices for The One I Love — from a story credited to McDowell, Justin Lader and Jason Segel, with a screenplay by Lader and Andrew Kevin Walker. The great majority of the film concerns three people, none of whom are given names. They are credited as Nobody (Segel), CEO (Jesse Plemons) and Wife (Lily Collins). Nobody has broken into CEO and Wife's vacation house, and he's about to get away when they unexpectedly arrive.
I will tell you as much about the setup as the trailer reveals: These people all wind up stuck in the house together, because Nobody never intended to hurt anyone. But he isn't willing to get caught, either, so he can't let CEO and Wife leave or call the police. He's willing to scram and let them go if they give him enough money. But it will take time to get hold of that much cash, even for CEO, who's a tech billionaire. So they all have to wait, together.
What follows is unsettling and suspenseful and very, very tense. It's also not infrequently comic; Nobody is not a brilliant criminal, and there are logistics to holding people hostage that he did not anticipate when he expected to rob an unoccupied house. Often, he and CEO both seem ridiculous, just a pair of doofuses of different kinds. Sometimes the comedy and the suspense collide and either mix or trade off, as they do in CEO's lavish orange grove. The score, from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, remains pleasingly, nervously old-fashioned.
McDowell has explained that this film was specifically conceived as a pandemic-appropriate project — and as such, it's something I honestly expected to see more of than we have in the past year or so: small-cast, limited-space, modest-scale stories that could easily have been plays. Much of it even takes place outside, in various parts of the sprawling property CEO and Wife use for their getaways. McDowell makes good use of a wide variety of backdrops both luscious and spare, as these three people grow to feel more and more trapped in this luxurious place.
The basic questions of a story like this are the simple ones: Is Nobody, a regular Joe trying to rob a billionaire, a good guy or bad guy? Is CEO secretly right that Nobody is just a resentful failure taking his disappointments out on other people? Are CEO and Wife the cohesive unit they appear to be when they are first confronted?
And, of course, how is this going to end? Will Nobody get away with it? Will the burbling threat of violence ever materialize? With the stakes so high and the tension mounting, will any of these people pay some very high price for a mistake that they make, or one someone else makes? You wonder if you will see some surprising alliance — between Nobody and CEO, or between Nobody and Wife, or between all three characters. You have a sense that at least one of them will show new sides under pressure.
There's a limited set of answers (in a movie that plays fair) to the question of whether this will end well or badly for (1) Nobody (2) CEO and (3) Wife. But that doesn't take anything away from what's ultimately a well-done, stripped-down thriller. Plemons has fun with the idea of the world-buying billionaire whose unshakable arrogance, even while he's a hostage, is both a weapon and a flaw. Collins plays Wife as a woman who has struggled to make her peace with being extraordinarily wealthy in return for being married to this man — a struggle with which Nobody is unsympathetic. And the bearded, sweaty Segel, who has a long history of playing lovable, lanky sad sacks, brings menace to Nobody, but balances it with a measure of false bravado that suggests he doesn't really intend anything bad to happen.
It's a well-structured tale that has the elements a movie like this needs most: details that will pay off later, truths you only spot on second viewing, and missteps by characters that suddenly change personal dynamics. It is, in a word, satisfying.
You'll often hear the argument that nobody makes grown-up films anymore, or films that don't rely on special effects, or movies that are just people talking — and fortunately, it's just not the case. This is a clever, tight (at 90 minutes), well-edited, well-acted and well-written movie that isn't done any disservice by being viewed at home as a Netflix offering. It's a fun movie that lives up to that retro opening.
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