There are three characters in Windfall, and none of them have names: a wealthy tech CEO played by Jesse Plemons (The Power of the Dog), his wife, played by Lily Collins (Emily in Paris), and the man who robs them, played by Jason Segel (The Muppets). They weren’t supposed to meet — at the start of the film, the thief is alone in the couple’s empty villa. it’s only when the couple changes their plans and arrive to find him in their home that the film’s tense, 90-minute negotiation kicks off. In the ensuing one-act play, the real hostage isn’t a person, it’s the idea of the meritocracy, as Windfall slowly becomes a class-rage thriller about holding the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world prisoner.
The latest film from director Charlie McDowell (The One I Love), now streaming on Netflix, is a Hitchcockian throwback, an exercise in restrained, clear filmmaking and the tension that arises when you put three people and a gun in a room together. Each character arrives onscreen and reveals a little about themselves, even though they’re trying not to. The more time they spend together, the more they reveal, even when it’s bad for them. They can’t help being who they are.
Filmed with wide shots and long takes, Windfall feels like a play, even though it doesn’t ditch the pleasures of cinema. Its single set — the villa and its surrounding orange grove — is lovingly portrayed with symmetrical compositions and gold-tinged colors. The film’s score is full of reedy woodwinds that take listeners through peaks and valleys as the power dynamics shift between the trio, whose performances are just loud enough to bring them firmly out the range of “subtle,” but not so much that they become outright cartoonish.
Plemons is a delight as “the CEO,” a man who, for much of the film’s runtime, cannot believe he’s being robbed. He suspects he’s somehow victimized the intruder, whose full motivation is never fully revealed — that his livelihood was somehow harmed by the successes of the CEO’s companies, or that he’s enraged by the CEO’s stature and perceives it as unearned. That belief manifests as smug condescension toward the guy holding him hostage: In one scene where the couple’s unexpected guest demands money, the CEO laughs, and says he should be asking for twice as much.
Much of Windfall consists of the male leads going back and forth about what they each want, and whether the other deserves to achieve his desires. In that sense, the CEO becomes an avatar for the new tech-billionaire elite, believing he’s earned his status and actually faces significant adversity, as the whole world eagerly waits for someone like him to fall. The thief, faced with his quarry’s pettiness, takes comfort in his belief that his understanding of people remains superior, no matter how desperate his situation gets. As the thief, Segel is a separate highlight: skittish and gaunt, displaying a bit of a mean streak rarely seen in his acting work. And in the balance is the wife: the film’s quiet fulcrum, whose sympathies shift and sway depending on who’s actually listening to her and who isn’t.
Windfall’s script, written by Justin Lader and Andrew Kevin Walker (from a story by Lader, Walker, Segel, and McDowell), isn’t quite subtle enough to make the film a success. Its commentary is heavy-handed, its characters sketched in too neatly. But the script lets all three characters get satisfyingly messy, as each of them crosses small lines that surprise the others, in a series of transgressions that pile up until the three people at the end of the film are entirely different from the three at the start. That’s the dangerous thing about so-called meritocracies: They’re often built on lies rewarded with money. Hold those lies to account, and the real person underneath starts looking a lot less exceptional than they did before.
Windfall is now available to stream on Netflix.