A billionaire and his wife are held prisoner by a stranger at their remote weekend retreat.
The home invasion genre may feel like a modern one, trading on the nervousness of the middle classes in societies increasingly paranoid about risk in general, however far-fetched it might be. In reality, however, films like Lady in a Cage (1964) and Straw Dogs (1971) long predate the likes of Panic Room (2002) and Us (2019). And there are earlier examples too, so it’s appropriate that Charlie McDowell’s new film Windfall is both quite old-fashioned and contemporary.
The retro one-sheet poster, the equally vintage typographic style of the opening titles, the stagey setup confining a small cast to a single location, the pervading memory of Alfred Hitchcock, even the way that the first nine-minutes are effectively a silent movie (there’s a little dialogue, but it’s unimportant)… all these things give Windfall the air of a movie made decades ago.
That said, its most compelling character is a tech CEO, a modern surveillance system provides the plot’s biggest turning point, and the resentments felt toward one another by each of the three main cast members are modern ones. The CEO (Jesse Plemons) despises snowflakes, his wife (the director’s own wife, Lily Collins) is secretly putting her career before marriage, and the intruder in their weekend home (Jason Segel) may well be one of those workers whom the CEO’s company has robbed of a job.
Certainly the CEO assumes he is, though that may be because this extraordinarily loathsome billionaire (one of Plemons’s finest creations, if not the subtlest) seems incapable of conceiving that some things might not be about him and his business.
None of the characters are given names, though Segal’s is credited as ‘Nobody’, in presumably an ironic reference to the CEO’s perception of him but also to given him an everyman quality. Certainly, when we first see Nobody lounging around at the deserted house—the setting unspecified, perhaps California or Nevada, given the mountains in the background and the location filming in Ojai—it’s clear he doesn’t belong there, and not just because he’s rootling around for money and valuables. There’s a swagger to his behaviour, and the first time he seems genuinely happy and triumphant is when he hurls a glass to smash it, but there’s also uncertainty in the way he moves and looks around.
It’s not long before the CEO and his wife unexpectedly turn up, Plemons instantly and effectively limning his character by complaining about preparations his personal assistant failed to make and instructing his wife how to behave in a way that’s domineering and pedantic even while it’s cloaked in affability. No surprise, then, that we identify more with Nobody, at least for the earlier parts of the movie: you’ll almost cheer him on, for example, in the scene where the CEO lectures the intruder about gun safety and Nobody quietly deflates the CEO.
As the film progresses, however, our affinities shift a bit: not so much away from Nobody, and definitely not towards the CEO (who gets even less rather than more attractive), but toward the wife—who gradually emerges as a fuller and more significant character, especially as tensions in her marriage become apparent—and also toward a fourth individual who appears unexpectedly. In short, we’re rooting for everyone except the CEO, the obvious bad guy in a film that lacks an obvious hero or heroine.
And this is where Windfall manages to be both interesting and unsatisfying. The intriguing aspect begins with the fact that the CEO is, at least on a legal level, an innocent man for the duration of the film while two others both commit fairly serious crimes. However, although one might for a long time think Windfall is suggesting the CEO’s sheer dislikability and his condescending, controlling nature justify our sympathies with the others, at the end it may emerge that another of the central trio is even worse than him. So are we being encouraged to judge a book by its cover, or advised not to do so?
Unfortunately, the meaning of the final scene remains ambiguous (has a good person been pushed too far, or a bad person shown their true self?), and the effect is inconclusive rather than tantalising. Certainly it keeps you thinking about the movie, but this ending has the distinct feeling of being tacked on to a situation that nobody in the writing team knew quite how to resolve. Similarly, Nobody’s motives—the other central question of Windfall—are never really explored.
Despite that, for nearly all of its runtime, Windfall is an absorbing film, benefiting from sometimes surprising writing, a tight adherence to physical confines, and above all Plemons’s performance.
The CEO is a monster, aggrieved and arrogant (“everyone’s an idiot to you”, says Nobody). Physically he verges on the hideous, a giant baby crossed with Orson Welles, and even his stubble is somehow repulsive (contrasted with the honest-working-man beard of Nobody). It doesn’t matter in dramatic terms whether the CEO’s fortune truly has been made at the expense of ordinary people’s jobs, as Nobody argues, because Plemons—rapidly emerging as one of the best actors of his generation—gives him such a magnificent unpleasantness.
Collins and Segel are low-key by comparison, though that’s no bad thing and they don’t fail to convince. Omar Leyva as the fourth character shines in a smaller role, and a strong part is also played by the musical score from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans—which, while often tense, can just as often be whimsical, and it springs constant surprises with the instrumentation and rhythm.
Windfall hints at some ideas of our time that few movies have explored, like the star status of tech moguls (“deep down, I really wanted you to be good”, Nobody tells the CEO). Mostly, though, McDowell and his team appear content to put commentary in second place and focus instead on telling a tightly-plotted, efficiently-filmed, well-written story.
In this Windfall clearly benefits from committed filmmaking, as actor Segel contributed to the screenplay and many of the key personnel (Segel, Plemons, screenwriter Justin Lader, the composers) are reuniting with Charlie McDowell after collaborating on his movie The Discovery (2017)
There’s nothing about most of it that doesn’t work, and much about it (from the photography to the performances) works very well. So it’s a pity about the ending, the one place where Windfall does overtly seem to aspire to delivering a lesson or a revelation, but only delivers a kind of bafflement.
USA | 2022 | 92 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Charlie McDowell.
writers: Charlie McDowell, Jason Segel, Justin Lader & Andrew Kevin Walker.
starring: Jason Segel, Lily Collins, Jesse Plemons & Omar Leyva.