Netflix’s Windfall is an odd film. With its vintage yellow title cards and theatrical musical score, the opening credits sequence set it up to be a Hitchcockian thriller in the same vein as Rope or Psycho.
Windfall quickly pivots from that tone, with its first act assuming the pace and mood of a goofy dark comedy rather than one of the many surgically precise, acid-tongued murder mysteries Alfred Hitchcock made.
The leap from tense thriller to black comedy is a tonal shift Windfall frequently attempts throughout its 92-minute runtime. In that way, the film ultimately feels the most indebted to the work of Joel and Ethan Coen, two filmmakers who are adept at injecting darkly comedic undertones into even their most intense thrillers. However, while Windfall’s attempts to do the same are admirable, it ultimately lacks the same understated precision that exists in the movies it’s clearly inspired by.
Fortunately, the aplomb missing from the film’s script is provided by Jesse Plemons, who delivers one of the most meme-able performances of the year so far in Windfall.
Directed by The One I Love and The Discovery filmmaker Charlie McDowell, Windfall takes place over the course of two days and follows one unnamed man (played by Jason Segel) when his attempt to rob the vacation home of a wealthy CEO (Plemons) and his wife (Lily Collins) goes terribly wrong. Intent on buying a new life for himself, Segel’s stranger takes Plemons and Collins’ rich couple hostage and forces the former to agree to give him $500,000 of his own money.
The trio has to spend two days together while they wait for the money to be delivered, but the situation turns out to be far less tense than one would reasonably expect. Instead of following Plemons and Collins’ characters as they try and find new ways to escape their predicament, the film’s runtime is taken up mostly by conversations between its three leads about class, power, privilege, and social responsibility.
“Plemons delivers one of his biggest and most brazen performances to date.”
In these scenes, Windfall attempts to deliver its most direct moments of social commentary. However, the film’s desire to make its three lead characters all stand-ins for recognizable 21st-century figures (a creative decision evidenced by the characters’ stock names, “Nobody,” “CEO,” and “Wife”) makes spending time with them an increasingly diminishing experience.
Tonally, Windfall strives to achieve the same violent, comedic balance as something like Fargo, but it lacks the specificity of place and character that ground both that film and so much of the Coen Brothers’ best work. The Netflix thriller feels like it could take place just about anywhere, and its characters feel like they could be just about anyone. As a result, if it weren’t for Plemons’ scene-stealing performance as Windfall’s spoiled central billionaire, the film’s many conversation scenes would all fall flat.
Starring opposite Segel and Collins, two usually dependable performers who have very little to do here, Plemons delivers one of his biggest and most brazen performances to date. As the target of much of its vitriol, Plemons’ billionaire CEO feels like Windfall’s most well-defined character, and he’s the only one of its three leads that McDowell and his collaborators seem to have no interest in building any sympathy for.
To his credit, Plemons, rather than trying to create dimensionality where there is none, leans as hard as he can into his character’s most brash, condescending qualities. He brings vibrant color and life to a character who is essentially a two-dimensional sketch of a human being rather than an authentic rendering of a specific person.
Plemons succeeds at doing that despite the film’s script, which wants him and its other two leads to come across more as representations of certain contemporary attitudes — namely, the American middle class’s growing impatience with the condescension of the rich — than as actual people. Unfortunately, neither Segel nor Collins manage to match Plemons’ energy in the film, which makes it all the more disappointing when Windfall decides to focus more on their characters in its second half.
The plot gives it all the necessary ingredients to be a tense, straightforward home invasion thriller. However, when it comes to thrills, the film only sporadically delivers. Instead, Windfall attempts to alternate between being a Hitchcockian home invasion thriller and a black comedy about the delusions of the rich. The latter elements work better than anything else in the film, but they also undercut its attempts to build sympathy for any of its characters, which becomes a major issue in the third act.
In other words, the biggest problem with Windfall is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be.
When the film’s attempts at comedy and social insight do land though, they almost always come courtesy of Jesse Plemons. The Oscar-nominated actor’s status as one of Hollywood’s most exciting performers has never been more apparent than in Windfall, a film that’s significantly less interesting as a whole than Plemons’ performance in it.
Windfall is streaming now on Netflix.