Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic more than two years ago, there has been no shortage of films or television shows that capture the mood of our particular global moment. Something like “Station Eleven,” a miniseries about a fictional deadly flu pandemic, hits almost too close to home at times, its beginnings eerily similar to our current situation and built with the power to evoke raw catharsis. A show like “Severance” feels like a product of the pandemic in a different way, ruminating on our relationship to work/life balance during a time when those lines are blurred for so many of us still working from home. A film like “Malcolm & Marie” doesn’t deal with the pandemic directly, but the story of its production – filmed with a small cast and crew at one remote location because of COVID-19 – is as much part of its narrative as anything that happens onscreen.
“Windfall” – a new Netflix film from director Charlie McDowell – is another pandemic-era creation. Filmed entirely at one house with a small cast and crew, the film doesn’t deal with the pandemic at all, but the effects of COVID-19 are no less felt. “Windfall” is interested in social issues that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic, shining its light on income inequality and the pitfalls of white feminism in particular. The question of whether the script is sophisticated enough to handle these subjects with grace frequently arises – characters often have conversations where the dialogue is about as subtle as a brick, and the film oscillates from thriller to black comedy without much connective tissue – but strong performances from the central three actors elevate the screenplay, which ends up arriving at a more interesting climax than you might expect.
“Windfall” opens on a sun-drenched veranda – beautiful, but almost sterile, especially when paired with a sinister score marked by chords of screeching dissonance. We meet a man (Jason Segel), credited as Nobody. At first glance, he seems to belong here, relaxing poolside and sipping a glass of orange juice. But his clothes – dirty jacket, dirty jeans, boots perpetually untied – are out of place with the pristine nature of the setting, and his actions – peeing in the shower, hurling his empty glass into the orange groves below – quickly betray he’s somewhere he’s not supposed to be.
Segel begins rummaging through the house and scraping up every bit of cash and jewelry he can find. But when the owners of the home – credited as CEO and Wife, played by Jesse Plemons and Lily Collins – arrive unexpectedly, Segel’s efforts come to a screeching halt. As Segel’s motives for targeting this particular house begin to unravel, the three must come to an agreement about how best to solve their current predicament.
In a world where a global pandemic has made the differences between the haves and have-nots all the more apparent – a world where Jeff Bezos sits comfortably on a multi-billion dollar nest egg while rumors spread of Amazon workers peeing in bottles and the injury rate at Amazon warehouses is more than twice as high as others – the story at the heart of “Windfall” is one that’s become all too familiar. Plemons CEO character functions as a stand-in for the Jeff Bezoses of the world while Segel’s Nobody is the working class guy who inadvertently became collateral damage to so-called progress. “Windfall” isn’t particularly subtle in its allegory, and leaning too far into that allegory towards the end of the film might be its biggest pitfall. The script manages to keep the audience guessing as to Nobody’s reasons for robbing the CEO up until the very end, but that reveal is lackluster and disappointing, choosing to reach for metaphor instead of grounding the allegory in real human emotion or motive.
Plemons steals the show as the narcissistic CEO, and is the actor who is best able to strike the right balance between the comedic and more Hitchcockian elements of the film. Early on, he has a sort of disinterested ease about him, his eyes tracking his captor with something akin to glee, as if he finds the whole interaction amusing. He quotes Dean Martin to his captor as if he hasn’t a care in the world, and half the time can’t even be bothered to sit up straight. But all that coolness is part of a facade that begins to drop as his captivity drones on, the cracks in the persona shown through a subtly tapping knee or a slight tightness around the jaw. Plemons has the majority of the screenplay’s more artless lines of dialogue – he literally says, “Try being a rich white guy these days” – but his naturalistic ability to live so deeply in the physical presence of the character gives lines like this more weight and dark humor than they would have had otherwise.
Segel has a bit of a harder task, having to work against his natural charisma to find the awkward burglar within. His 6’4” frame easily conveys the imposing nature of the character, but Segel is an actor who tends to come across comfortable in his own skin, so he has to fight a bit to find the physicality of the twitchy “Nobody.” He telegraphs a bit too much at times, leaning on jerky, physical movements to get the character across. But as the film progresses and the Plemons character begins to go off the rails, Segel settles into himself, seemingly more comfortable with the character when he has a semblance of power over the powerful.
Plemons and Segel might have the most to do, but Collins has the most to work with. As the Wife, she’s a prototypical “girl boss,” and the best parts of Justin Lader and Andrew Kevin Walker’s script deal with breaking down that persona. The Wife runs her husbands’ foundation, she’s in charge of building schools and hospitals, and she’s worked at a plethora of nonprofits in the past – “Not that I have to justify my resume to you,” she says to Nobody when he questions her. When the CEO asks her to get into Nobody’s good graces as a way of finding their way out of their captive situation, it seems as though it might work. Collins plays the character as clearly contemptuous of her husband, so the ruse comes from a place of honesty. In one scene, she delivers a speech to Nobody about feeling trapped in a luxurious life she wasn’t sure she wanted. The speech feels sincere, Collins unguarded in that moment and oblivious to how ridiculous it might sound to the man sitting across from her.
Solid in her belief that she is a good person, despite the actions of the man she’s chosen to marry and work with, the Wife begins to position herself on the side of Nobody, often facing off against the CEO. The moments of tension between the Wife’s pure belief in her goodness and the film’s more murky take on the subject are where “Windfall” excels. The script is at its most interesting when it’s interrogating the wife’s role in her husband’s dealings and how she views her “plight” compared to the hardships of others, building to a climax that’s as unsubtle as the rest of the film, but a pretty pitch perfect allegory of what a wealthy white woman will do in the name of victimhood.