A surface level home invasion character study
If there’s a life lesson to be learned from writer-director Charlie McDowell’s (The One I Love) latest film, Windfall, a home-invasion drama starring frequent collaborator Jason Segel (How I Met Your Mother, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), it’s both simple and absolutely essential: Home invaders should not only wear comfortable, slip-resistant shoes, they should make sure those same comfortable, slip-resistant shoes are properly laced up and double-knotted. If not, tragedy, or at minimum, comedy, might befall the poor home invader who realizes he or she forgot to wear comfortable, slip-resistant shoes and just as importantly, double-knot their shoelaces. Other lessons, life or otherwise, contained in Windfall, however, are few and far between.
When we meet Segel’s unnamed, downwardly mobile character, he’s enjoying a sun-filled day at an expansive, expensive, ranch-style home ensconced in rows of orange trees. Segel’s character, identified only as “Nobody” in the credits, doesn’t own the home or the surrounding property, of course. He’s a home invader non-urgently seeing how the other half (i.e., the haves to his have-nots) lives before strolling through the house looking for valuables to pilfer. Before he can pilfer said valuables, however, the home’s billionaire tech owner (Jesse Plemons) and the tech owner’s wife (Lily Collins) return unexpectedly, leaving Segel’s character with nowhere to run, walk, or crawl, ultimately forcing him into the unenviable position of either surrendering to the unarmed CEO and his wife or taking them hostage.
Segel’s character takes the second, ultimately harder path, using a newfound firearm to strong-arm the CEO and his wife into compliance. Except, unfortunately, he doesn’t have a plan, probably because he never expected to be caught. Instead, Segel’s character attempts to make it up as he goes along, the “it” being what to do with the CEO and his wife and how to get away with the pilfered valuables before they can free themselves and contact law enforcement. Over the next few hours, the plan changes, from leaving them behind immediately to going nowhere, the latter in the hopes that the CEO’s promise of roughly $500K in cold, hard cash will be delivered the following day, in turn giving Nobody the chance to escape and start a new life somewhere else.
Unsurprisingly, Nobody’s continuing presence in the CEO and his wife’s lives begins to expose fissures and fractures that were maybe always there. A tech-bro through and through, the alpha male CEO attempts to buy off Nobody (because every relationship is a transaction) and when that doesn’t work to the CEO’s satisfaction, manipulate Nobody into making a possibly fatal mistake. Nobody reciprocates the non-favor, challenging the CEO’s wife and the life choices she’s made (i.e., trading her body and companionship for wealth, status, and security), though McDowell, working from a slightly undercooked screenplay co-written by Justin Lader and Andrew Kevin Walker (8MM, Se7en) repeatedly emphasizes the possibility that each character, alone and collectively, may not be who they present themselves to be.
McDowell leans into this interpretation by deliberately not naming the characters. They’re meant to be contemporary stand-ins, each one representing a type, even an archetype, rather than a fully fleshed out, three-dimensional character. We learn the least about Nobody’s character. Outside of his impoverished state and his outsized grudge against the CEO (possibly linked to Nobody’s unemployed status), Nobody’s defined by his actions or lack thereof. He’s far from a professional thief; blundering, stumbling, and bumbling into committing multiple felonies. The CEO likewise shows little beyond what we see and assume: He’s a self-entitled, egotistical narcissist who believes his own media-manipulated branding while his wife (Collins and McDowell are married in real life), a lowly assistant he plucked out of obscurity and massive student loan debt, may be the most survival-obsessed member of the unfortunate trio.
Prettily shot in Ojai, California, a decision that informed and guided the screenplay from day 1, Windfall isn’t so much a home-invasion thriller (it has few thrills) as it is a chamber piece or character study, examining each character in turn and how they respond to threats to their well-being, physical and otherwise. That examination, though, stubbornly remains surface level throughout, content with making over-obvious points (and point-scoring) about our current socio-economic climate, the growing divide between the upper and lower classes, and, if you screw your eyes tightly enough, the vanishing middle class as represented by Segel’s down-and-out unnamed character.
Windfall begins streaming Friday, March 18th, on Netflix.