Films set in one location have become common due to the shooting constraints of the past two years. Charlie McDowell’s Windfall isn’t even the only film releasing on Friday set in one locale (The Outfit is the other), but it takes skill to keep an audience's attention in such cases. With no change of scenery, the film relies almost solely on the film’s performance and a sharp script to keep the viewer stuck in its hook.
Windfall draws the viewer in immediately with the cloud of anticipation that hangs over the Hacienda-style home that will be the theatre of a three-person show. The camera remains fixed on its exterior as the opening credits roll. Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’s score is what catches your immediate attention. It’s quiet at first, evoking an air of mystery. Then, suddenly, it’s booming out of nowhere – not unlike noir films. The tension created from such a piece is what the noir genre is known for. But while this isn’t a film that could fit its characteristics, it knows how to burrow the genre's elements to enhance its atmosphere.
The curiosity conveyed is only emphasized by the introduction of the film’s unnamed leads. First, there’s a man (Jason Segel) who seems right at home on the property, indulging in the oranges of its orchard. However, when he begins whipping handles and various surfaces, rifling through drawers, and putting money in his pockets, you realize he’s a burglar. When the owners arrive, it surprises him. What was supposed to be a relaxing time to unplug, turns into a hostage situation for the husband and wife pair (Jesse Plemons and Lily Collins). It’s a situation that seems too simple at first; one that could easily be diffused. The thief isn’t threatening. He has an innocence to him like this is the first time he’s ever done anything like this and he doesn’t know how to come face to face with his actions. The husband is also willing to give him megabucks. However, when he thinks he’s successfully made off with a steal, he spies a security camera on the property, despite the husband assuring him they had no security. He may have lied and he may have not, that isn’t clear, but what is is that this robbery was no random act. Things escalate and they’re at a stalemate.
Bensi and Jurriaans’s score is quirky to mirror the thief’s behavior or to enhance the uncharacteristically amusing tone of this crime, with a chase scene, for example, having a Wes Anderson-y pep to it. It’s entertaining to watch the couple negotiate a sum with the thief to finally try to end the whole ordeal. But, unfortunately, they have to spend a long day and night together before the money is delivered. There’s an interesting dynamic at play due to the thief’s unthreatening demeanor, and the film cleverly has the hostages ask the same “whys” as the audience does. Normally, a situation like this would veer into Stockholm syndrome territory, but because the burglar doesn’t frighten the couple, they seem like a group of buddies hanging out as they make small talk, watch a movie, and crack a cold one. The burglar does, however, get under the couple’s skin which unintentionally reveals cracks in their marriage -- revelations that they may not recover from. The situation, inevitably, gets messy, with a finale that launches the group over the edge.
McDowell, along with co-writers Jason Segel, Justin Lader, Andrew Kevin Walker, have crafted a film that successfully separates itself from other thieving thrillers. But while it does this, it fails to build satisfying layers to its characters. The performances all impress, but we come out of the film knowing only bits and pieces about the couple and knowing little about the thief. What we do find out is centered around the husband’s wealth. The husband is unlikable as a selfish, unsympathetic billionaire who is clouded by his privilege and the faux plight of the rich white man. Through this event, we see the sacrifices the rich would make to get out of a situation that doesn’t benefit them, and how money is meaningless to them but the sharing of such wealth would be meaningful to those who truly appreciate it.
The thief’s actions are controlled by his desire to start over, but the couple’s strain reveals how wealth doesn’t result in a picture-perfect life. All these things are known and have been discussed in films before, but under the umbrella of a thriller, it adds more stakes for having such desperate ambitions. It’s hard to get out of a life where you have everything, and equally hard to get out of a life where you have nothing. The film doesn’t aim to build sympathy for anyone, but it reminds its audience that happiness doesn’t equal the figures in a bank account.
Movie Score: 3.5/5