Shea Whigham enlivens this occasionally formulaic crime thriller
Shea Whigham stars as Parker, a social worker with a heart (and a gun) in this downbeat crime story, and it’s thanks to his raw and gritty performance that it works as well as it does. Whigham is much underrated as an actor but on the evidence of The Gateway, more films with him taking the lead would not be unwelcome. He manages to engage, even when the plotting starts to become over-familiar, and without his presence, the film would have been far less interesting to watch.
Set in St Louis, Missouri – the ‘Gateway to the West’ – the film focuses on Parker and his attempts to support the families that have been designated to him. As he had a troubled childhood himself, he is able to relate to the kids that he cares for, and this is what makes him so good at his job.
This isn’t to say his casework doesn’t take its toll on him, however. During his daily rounds, he witnesses all kinds of hardships and tragedies, so it’s little wonder that he spends his evenings drinking at a bar to blot out the suffering he experiences as a consequence of his work.
Much of Parker’s time is spent with Ashley (Taegen Burns) and her mother Dahlia (Olivia Munn) as he tries to keep the young teenager in school while her mom goes to work. He has a good relationship with them but all this changes when Dahila’s husband Mike (Zach Avery) returns home after spending time in prison. Mike is less than happy to know Parker has been spending time with his wife and kid and tells him to steer clear now that he is back in the picture.
But as Parker isn’t somebody who backs away easily, he continues to involve himself with the family. It’s a good job that he does, as Mike is abusive towards his wife and is neglectful of his daughter. Matters take a darker turn when the family’s lives are endangered because of Mike’s involvement with an underground drugs scheme led by a local crime boss (Frank Grillo). Parker does what he can to support the mother and daughter, despite the risks to his own life, and it’s his intervention that gives this film its heart.
The first half of the film is the strongest as we get to understand more about Parker and the loyalty he has towards the people in his care. It would have been more involving without the narrative excursion into Missouri’s criminal underbelly and it’s easy to imagine a television series with Parker as the crusading character protecting the lives of others within his neighbourhood.
Sadly, the film moves into crime thriller territory shortly after Mike’s arrival home and it then starts to falter. There is one excellent scene involving a robbery and a shootout but the film then follows a traditional path as the director hones in on Mike and his criminal misdeeds.
The story is enlivened by Parker and the things he does to save the lives of Ashley and Dahlia, but even he gets lost within the tired old tropes that the genre is well known for.
There is still much to like about the film, despite the various plot contrivances that threaten to drag the whole thing down. The soundtrack is decent, the dialogue is snappy, and the performances are all fine, with special mention to Bruce Dern, who gives the film extra gravitas as Parker’s estranged father. The film also has a strong ending, despite the missteps that it has taken before, although you might need to prepare yourself for a few heartbreaking scenes.
If you’re looking for a crime story with a gun-toting social worker in the lead, you might enjoy this one. It’s easy to imagine Clint Eastwood in Whigham’s role or even Liam Neeson, so if you’re a fan of the Dirty Harry or Taken style of films, The Gateway could be for you. This might also be for you if you want a film that captures the darker underbelly of small-town America as this film admirably delivers on that front.
But if you’re looking for a story that is markedly different from the many crime thrillers you have seen before, you may be a little disappointed. It’s not completely unoriginal but with a greater insight into Parker and the motivations that drive him, this could have become so much more than the violent potboiler that it eventually becomes.
Verdict - 6/10