Most of us will never know what it’s like to grow up in a family where sibling rivalries might emerge from the disparities between a $20 million inheritance and a $1 million inheritance. But with the popularity of rich-people dissections like HBO’s Succession, it’s fair to say that viewers can still sniff out fakeness, even in pulpier variations on perils-of-privilege material. Inheritance, a new VOD thriller that takes place primarily within the moneyed confines of a powerful New York dynasty, is made with enough quiet confidence to sow some doubt over whether its stilted dialogue is supposed to be an intentional reflection of a rich family’s awkward formality. As the movie goes on, though, it becomes increasingly clear that almost everyone’s behavior is alien beyond normal human recognition.
The most recognizable human in this situation is supposed to be Lauren Monroe (Lily Collins), whose recently deceased father Archer (Patrick Warburton) did not approve of her controversial decision to become a respected Manhattan district attorney rather than practicing law privately. (Her willingness to prosecute Archer’s fellow businessmen may have something to do with it.)
Archer preferred her brother William (Chace Crawford) for his vastly more prestigious career as a congressman, which is why he gets the larger inheritance when Archer dies. Lauren claims she doesn’t care, but she’s actively concerned about her other inheritance: the keys to a barely concealed secret underground bunker on the family property, which turns out to contain a bedraggled man named Morgan Warner (Simon Pegg), being kept in chains.
Morgan claims he’s been Archer’s secret prisoner for decades, but he has some demands before he’ll answer Lauren’s many questions about the situation. For her part, Lauren, the family’s morally upright member, is appalled and terrified by what Morgan’s presence indicates about her father. At the same time, she isn’t appalled enough to free Morgan and report what is, from almost any conceivable angle apart from “extra-long con involving building a bunker on someone else’s property,” a kidnapping. The movie is trying to set up a moral quandary: With William’s re-election coming up, Morgan could ruin Lauren’s family. His situation could take an enormous toll on her and her loved ones, all for a crime they didn’t commit.
It’s a preposterous hook, and that preposterousness is what makes it potentially entertaining. Where director Vaughn Stein and screenwriter Matthew Kennedy falter — more specifically than “immediately” and “often” — is in creating a believable character whose navigation of this insane situation doesn’t just prompt the audience to keep asking why she didn’t immediately call the police. Collins isn’t especially convincing as either a hard-charging, systems-savvy DA, or a morally conflicted daughter. But given the script, it’s hard to blame her for not bringing those elements across.
Inheritance seems confused about how her two sides inform each other, or even how they exist in the same brain. She seems far more aghast at the suggestion that her obviously immoral father might have cheated in his marriage than the idea that he might be the secret jailer from Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy. Lauren spends a lot of time demanding answers (we know this, because she says, “I want answers!”) and the rest of the time asking the wrong questions. The movie drags as it waits for her to catch up. Her reluctance to believe in her father’s crimes is implausible, and hardly anyone watching the movie will share her struggle.
On the other side of this psychological duel, which the movie helpfully underlines by repeatedly placing a chess set between its two leads, Pegg manages to be both menacingly mysterious and sympathetic. He’s especially fun to watch when he’s allowed to cut loose, and between his performance and some strong makeup work, he believably embodies someone a decade or so older than his actual age. He’s both the only actor in Inheritance who sells his character’s emotions and the only one who seems ready to admit that he’s in a pulpy thriller.
Everyone else seems to have been told they’re in a slow-burning, slow-building master class in suspense. Though Stein assembles his early sequences with precision, laying out geography and shorthanding through set design, that sharpness is undermined by basically everything else in the movie, from micro to major. The script is plagued with awkward phrasings and garbled dialogue: William refers to receiving a “bump in the polls” in the same sentence where he mentions slipping in popularity in those polls. Another character says “inclination” when they seem to mean “inkling.” These are small moments, but in a blatantly ridiculous story, they ensure that even the quieter moments strain credibility.
By the time Inheritance’s final stretch reaches the nuttier levels it needed (including a great recurring image of a character holding a gun and a flashlight, so the gun casts a looming shadow over them), any goodwill generated by its grabby premise and Pegg’s charisma has been depleted. For the finale, the filmmakers seem to admit as much, as they discard whatever semblance of class commentary they have left. It’d be easy to call Inheritance a poor man’s version of Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winner Parasite. (To be clear, it was written and shot before Parasite debuted.) Tonally, though, it more resembles a version of that near-perfect thriller as reimagined by an oblivious rich guy.
Inheritance is now streaming on Amazon and other digital-rental services.
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