The pandemic proved to be quite a creative time for artists, who were forced to sit still for the first time in their lives. While the upside was the instant percolation of ideas and completion of projects and screenplays that would otherwise have taken months, if not years, the downside of the pandemic for filmmakers was the conundrum of, “I’ve got a great script…now what?” Because of production restrictions, full-blown movie sets have only recently come back, so, filmmakers who really wanted to work during the pandemic had to be creative. And thus a new genre was borne, loosely known as “pandemic cinema.” Although it is true that most of the films nominated for Best Picture were also shot during the pandemic (and some, like Belfast, even written during it, too) and could legitimately be called pandemic films, there’s a whole other breed of specialty, specifically unique to the pandemic genre of film that COVID hath spawned, that of the intimate story with just two or three actors, and shot in a single location. Films like Malcolm and Marie, Host and Songbird are just three examples of films that went from script-to-screen in record time, assisted by their minimal production needs. The latest example of this type of film is Windfall, written by Justin Lader and Andrew Kevin Walker, and directed by Charlie McDowell, debuting on Netflix on March 18.
Windfall is an intimate, dramatic thriller about a wealthy young couple, played by Jesse Plemons and Lily Collins, who arrive at their vacation home in the desert to find it being burglarized by a stranger, played by Jason Segel. One of the features of the conceptualized screenplay is that none of the characters are given a name, we simply know them as “Wife,” (Collins) “CEO” (Plemons) and “Nobody” (Segal). The only information we learn about these characters is that CEO is a billionaire who made his money in tech and his wife gave up her dreams of a career when she married him to run his charitable foundation. Nobody was in the middle of robbing their sprawling desert mansion when CEO and Wife arrived, unexpectedly, so Nobody had no choice but to take them hostage, using a gun he found in the house. He realizes the only way he’s going to get out of this is to have enough money to get far away, so he demands that CEO get him a load of cash, but CEO tells him he won’t be able to get it until the next day, the soonest his assistant can drop it off. So, while the three of them wait for the money, tensions mount as anxiety grows, and revelations and circumstances push each one to the brink.
It’s impossible to not instantly think of Hitchcock within the first three minutes of this film, it is so thoroughly an homage to the master’s style of building suspense and creating tension. Lader and Walker (with McDowell and Segel contributing to the story) write a tight and simple screenplay that lets the mood and the setting do most of the heavy lifting in generating the story. McDowell admitted that they knew they wanted to shoot at this particular property, and wrote the screenplay to fit the location, and the film very much plays that way, as the setting, filmed at a sprawling, beautiful ranch style one-level house in an orange grove outside of Ojai, California, is the main player in creating the twists and turns in the plot. McDowell and his director of photography, Isiah Donté Lee, do a great job in bringing the audience into the space, allowing both its isolation and its serenity to serve as a stirring contrast to the ratcheting of tension that grows as the film progresses.
But it is the score that is the most omnipresent in creating the mood in this film and is the element that dictates the experience of the film more than anything else. Written by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, this expressive and dynamic score is also evocative of Hitchcock, with its unsubtle queues, rising and falling notes and emotional crescendos fueling the tension, teasing and tempting us, almost playful in its melodramatic largesse. It’s by far the most engaging element of the film and a big part of the audience’s engagement with the story.
Unfortunately, it is the story that cannot rise to the same level as the score or the production design, as the over-simplified and inherently unoriginal premise ultimately lets it down. The actors do their best, especially Segel in creating an ambiguous character who we cannot decide whether to root for or against, but there just isn’t enough for them to do. Plemons inhabits his character with an unease that never really allows him to take root. He is an actor who can find the subtleties in every role he plays, but he feels slightly miscast here, as the character’s arrogance conflicts with Plemons’ natural talent for underplaying. As for Collins, looking to show her dramatic chops after gaining massive steam in the hit series Emily in Paris, her performance is mildly generic, but that’s largely because the role is written that way.
There is an internal social commentary that provides some depth of character building in Windfall, and it’s mostly done with a deft touch. The most effective part of the screenplay is how much it doesn’t reveal about these characters and their motivations. Segel’s character, the protagonist, is left as big a mystery at the end at he is at the beginning, and that is a tricky thing to achieve, with as much as the audience is brought into the story and the connections we make with him. A large part of that is due to Segel’s charisma, but McDowell played into the degree of difficulty and successfully leaned into the ambiguousness of his character, making it work.
While Windfall might come and go as another Netflix pandemic movie that may feel like another filmed play with not a lot of depth or originality, there’s enough in the experience to make it worth your while, especially if you love Hitchcock homages, and especially if you love scores that don’t just sit in the background and try to disappear. It’s more than enough to rise above some of the dreck that came out of the pandemic, and certainly is worthy of standing on its own, far from its dark origins.