Have you ever noticed how the homes of the ultra-wealthy look like no one lives in them? There is an eerie quality, the opposite of domesticity. Netflix’s new film Windfall opens with a long, sustained shot of the patio furniture of a poolside mansion, straight from an Architectural Digest spread. Birds chirp, flowers bloom, the outdoor coffee table is a solid slab of concrete. It all screams expensive. In a long, wordless scene, we follow an unnamed man (Jason Segel, credited as “Nobody”) as he wanders through this beautiful property, sipping iced coffee by the pool, and finally walking into the empty house. The rooms are as chic as the grounds, with Spanish tiles throughout, pristine plaster walls, and abstract pottery. The man is about to leave, but then he doesn’t. Instead, he returns to the house and starts looting. He puts a Rolex on his wrist, collects jewelry and puts whatever money he can find in the pockets of his ragged pants. This is a break-in, albeit a laconic one. The thief is on his way out when the owners show up for a last-minute romantic getaway. They capture him before he manages to sneak away. And while this man is a total amateur, he piles crime upon crime and takes the wealthy couple hostage.
The owners, a tech billionaire (Jesse Plemons) and his chic wife (Lily Collins), try to reason with the burglar and offer him everything he can get. They almost manage to get him to leave. But when “Nobody” suspects he’s been caught on tape, he asks for enough money to start a new life, so the trio has to wait for half a million cash to be delivered the next day. Watching the clock, the burglar and his captives stroll the pretty, sun-drenched grounds, meandering through the sprawling orange grove, sitting around a pretty fire pit and winking engaging in conversation. The billionaire can’t believe what a jerk his kidnapper is and finds every excuse to poke him. We learn that the origin of the billionaire’s fortune is a layoff algorithm and that he doesn’t mind creating it; he wastes little time asking the thief if he was one of the unlucky ones who lost their jobs because of his work. And the burglar is a jerk; he struggles to free his wife’s wallet, can’t hold on to his boots, and throws tantrums whenever things don’t go his way, which often happens. Meanwhile, while the woman plays peacemaker between the two men, she begins to frolic about the state of her marriage.
Director Charlie McDowell excels at putting unhappy couples to the test during so-called secluded retreats. In his 2014 film The One I Love, another man and woman meet unexpected strangers in a dreamy vacation home as they try to rekindle their relationship. But where The One I Love had a science fiction twist, Windfall is propelled by a real crisis: the yawning chasm between the incredibly rich and the rest of us, and the inability to bridge it unscathed. Despite its gleaming setting, Windfall has a noir tone, imbuing its story with a cynicism as pervasive as the vistas the mansion overlooks.
Watching Segel’s burglar push his way into increasingly grim circumstances made me think of The Edukators, the 2004 German-Austrian crime drama about a trio of young radicals who decide to teach the rich a lesson by breaking into their homes. to upset them. But while The Edukators sympathizes with its underclass, Windfall is ruthless. It would have been easy for this movie to slip into a morality game – poor schlub robs rich bastards, hooray! – but it is not a triumph of the proles. If anything, it’s a testimony to the amorality of the universe, a Fargo with no Marge Gunderson in sight. Segel’s burglar is no modern Robin Hood; he’s just a doofus who mustered up enough courage to pull off a robbery and enough folly to get greedy and ask for more. Although the characters are presented as archetypes, there is no hero here.
For the first hour, Windfall plays like a dark comedy. The burglar’s ineptitude fuels some funny moments, such as when he demands more money and asks $150,000 in cash. The rich people he extorts tell him he needs more than that if he’s trying to create a brand new identity. No one in the trio seems violent and they are all more annoyed than scared. Collins’ wife is not so much an innocent entangled as a person who slowly realizes that the terms of her deal with the devil weren’t really that favorable. The Plemons billionaire, cocky and disdainful, is technically a victim yet so viscerally obnoxious that it’s hard to sympathize when tied up and looted.
But hostage situations rarely end when everyone goes about their business unharmed. I won’t say more about what unfolds, other than there’s a scene of about 70 minutes in it that shocked me so much that I jumped off my couch. (Gore-avers, be warned!) Jokes aside, this is a sharp, nasty little thriller. Despite its modest size, it leaves a powerful astringent aftertaste.
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