Stylish, clever, but ultimately inconsistent
We open on an orange grove where a lone figure reclines languidly in a deck chair, surveying the picturesque scenery of Ojai, California. The man closes eyes and sighs contentedly before finishing his glass of orange juice and casually making his way to the grounds’ luxurious homestead. But he is not the owner. He is a burglar, whose latest job becomes unexpectedly complicated by the sudden arrival of the real occupants- an egocentric tech billionaire and his wife.
This is the setup for the offbeat Netflix thriller Windfall- a well-cast, beautifully shot, and reasonably entertaining film that’s unfortunately let down by patchy character development. It’s a noticeable flaw given audiences spent most of Windfall’s ninety-minute run time with just three of them, all of whom are unnamed and referred to in the script as “Nobody (Jason Segel),” “CEO (Jesse Plemons),” and “Wife” (director Charlie McDowell’s actual wife, Lily Collins).
The unlikely trio are thrust into a hostage situation when CEO and Wife make a spontaneous trip to their secluded vacation home with the worst possible timing and interrupt a crime. Reluctant to use violence, Nobody initially barricades the pair in their sauna to give himself a head start before they can raise the alarm. But the stakes become significantly higher after the thief spots a security camera that has recorded his every move.
He demands five-hundred-thousand dollars cash- enough to go on the run and start a new life- to which CEO agrees. The only problem? It’ll be twenty-four hours before his assistant drops off the loot. That’s enough time for resentments to fester, alliances strain, and blood spill. And they call vacations relaxing?
McDowell is a filmmaker unafraid to break narrative convention. Blending elements of sci-fi, surrealism, romantic drama, and dark comedy, the young director has been compared to everyone from Hitchcock and David Lynch. Windfall is no exception, and though not as mind-bending as previous features The One I Love or The Discovery (also starring Segel) it is equally as hard to define.
Far from a straightforward heist flick, Windfall is part relationship drama, part noir throwback thriller, and part “eat the rich” social commentary. Some of these elements work better than others, however.
The film is probably most effective as an old-fashioned thriller. Leaning in to his classic noir influences, McDowell’s command of visual texture and perspective create an impressively cinematic style not just for a Netflix feature, but for the genre itself.
The single location and minimal cast also bring an air of claustrophobic dread, despite arising from practical necessity as opposed to artistic choice.
“The whole idea of how to make this film and just what we wanted to explore in the film came out of the restrictions of shooting at this time,” McDowell told Hollywood Reporter.
“And it was kind of two months into the pandemic when me, Jason Segel, Justin Lader… and Andrew Kevin Walker, the four of us got on a Zoom. Jason pitched a kind of one-line idea of something that we could write and shoot in one location and keep the crew really small and the cast really small.”
Regardless, it works. Not only does this bare-basics storytelling intensify the suspense of the situation, it reinforces some of Windfall’s key themes as the trappings of extreme wealth- privacy, seclusion, and celebrity status- are potentially fatal vulnerabilities and luxury lodgings become a prison. Apparently, being a billionaire isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The film does lose narrative focus at a few points, with the middle third in particular feeling unnecessarily slow (night one of the stand-off drags to the point we could be living the characters’ boredom in real-time). But just as the film seems to have lost all momentum, it ramps back up again for an explosive twist ending some viewers will love, others hate, and none will expect.
Without giving too much away, Windfall’s finale simultaneously exhibits its best and worst elements. On the one hand, it delivers a suitably unpredictable end for a film that keeps audiences on their toes throughout. This is largely thanks to Jason Segel- veteran Best Supporting Stoner of Knocked Up, This Is The End, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall fame- ingeniously miscast as would-be burglar Nobody.
Segel’s portrayal of Nobody as a fumbling, decidedly un-hardened criminal introduces a whole other layer of uncertainty and intrigue to the psychological standoff with viewers never quite sure of the threat being posed. Is it all just a bluff? Or could Nobody’s obvious inexperience and unrehearsed gamer plan make him all the more dangerous?
It also provides much of Windfall’s intermittent humour. A ransom negotiation between Nobody and CEO is, for example, mined for absurdity as Nobody’s arbitrary and increasingly frustrated demands are slyly ridiculed by the billionaire (“One hundred and fifty thousand?” CEO condescends. “You’re going to blow through it like that.”).
In fact, every character in Windfall is dryly funny in their own way. Plemons’ CEO is an insufferably smug yet delightfully quippy smartass, while Lily James is flawlessly deadpan as long-suffering Wife. Yet too often the comedy comes at the expense of any real depth or development. In its absence, even the most shocking plot turns fail to achieve emotional payoff and attempted social commentary is superficial at best.
CEO, Wife and Nobody all have potential, but unfortunately become less interesting the more we see of them. Hard-won details of the characters’ lives and personalities, far from adding depth, conform to broadly drawn stereotypes. (A billionaire CEO is revealed to be arrogant and entitled? What a shocker!)
Windfall’s thematic depth suffers from a similar flaw. Any moral ambiguity (is it ever ok to harm others, even those least deserving of their good fortune? Is financial security worth sacrificing independence?) is steamrolled over with cliches. There’s not much room for ambiguity at all when characters are unequivocally awful (CEO), anachronistic Stepford Wives (Wife), or mouthpieces for the film’s vague, working-class politics (the self-righteous Nobody).
Though Windfall falls short of its potential, there’s still a lot to like about this off-centre, tightly wound ride. Steadily enjoyable (if not entirely memorable) and far more sophisticated than the average Netflix original, Windfall is best enjoyed when not taken too seriously. But like the lifestyle of a billionaire, below the surface is an unfortunate case of style over substance.
Read More: Windfall Ending Explained
Verdict - 7/10