“Windfall,” a delightful thriller that premiered to little fanfare on Netflix last week, would have fit neatly into the independent film boom of the 1990s, when a generation of young actors and directors cast off the stodginess of prestige filmmaking and told violent, stylized, and dialogue-driven stories with the urgency of youth. Filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson had no need for grandeur, at least not at first. They got by on confidence and skill, and so does “Windfall,” which is built on a single location, a few well-drawn characters, and a plucky spirit. It’s a formula that works in any era.
It opens as a home invasion thriller, with a tech-bro billionaire (Jesse Plemons) and his wife (Lily Collins) arriving at their desert vacation home to find a mysterious man (Jason Segel) going through their things. The burglar doesn’t seem dangerous. He doesn’t even have a gun, although he acquires one from the CEO’s desk. It’s more that there’s a kindness in his eyes. There’s also desperation, which is why the billionaire agrees to the burglar’s demands – he wants $500,000 to start his life over – complaining about it at every step of the way. He’s entitled and grumpy and not used to taking orders from someone below his station, but all the burglar has to do is step close to him and say, “Don’t make me hurt you in front of your wife,” and the billionaire shuts up real quick.
The characters aren’t assigned names by the screenplay, which, in lesser hands would be an annoying artistic quirk, but writer-director Charlie MacDowell knows what he’s doing. The burglar doesn’t share his name because he’s not stupid. The husband and wife don’t use each other’s names because married couples typically don’t. And the gardener (Omar Leyva), who throws a wrench into the burglar’s plans when he shows up to work on the lawn, is only referred to as “the gardener,” because the billionaire wouldn’t make the effort to learn his name.
The lack of proper names also creates an intimacy between these characters, who, although they have just met and have every reason to hate each other, almost seem to have known each other forever. It’s an uneasy detente, a sort of bond between enemies. In a strange sense, they complete each other. The billionaire can’t shut up; the burglar only speaks when necessary; and the wife makes every word count. She’s unhappy with her husband but not desperate enough to take the bold, life-changing steps of her kidnapper, and yet she seems wiser than either of them. As these three unhappy souls lie, bicker, and negotiate for their lives, the manicured desert setting of “Windfall” starts to feel more like a purgatory. You get the sense that they might be doing this for the rest of their lives, and you can kind of want them to.
“Windfall” largely succeeds on the backs of its actors, particularly Plemons and Segel, both of whom play firmly against type. Plemons has had a varied television career, but in the movies, he is best known for playing taciturn men in films like “Game Night,” “The Irishman,” and especially “The Power of the Dog,” in which his face barely moves a muscle. In “Windfall,” he goes the opposite route, playing an entitled man-child throwing a 36-hour tantrum. The billionaire tries to be calm and collected, but the indignity of being bossed around in his own home brings out his inner brat. Overflowing with rage and bile, Plemons relishes every moment.
His live-wire act is a marked contrast to Segel, who drops the comic pretense for which he’s known and enacts a captivating, minimalist performance as a man trying not to fall into an abyss. In his comedies, like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “The Muppets”, Segel projected cherubic kindness, but he’s older and thinner now. His eyes are hollowed out, but there’s something in there that compels you to look deeper. It almost feels like a silent film performance, uncannily powerful without any visible effort.
Plemons and Segel are a perfect yin and yang, which leaves Collins as the odd actor out. The script by MacDowell (who is her husband in real life) makes the effort to understand her character’s conflict, but it feels shoehorned in, and the shocking choices she makes in the film’s final scenes feel inauthentic. If anything, the slightly-contrived denouement could be viewed as a nod to the film’s inspiration, those indie films of the ‘90s that occasionally sacrificed character for artistic flair. The stylish “Windfall” is similarly not without flaws, but it’s a perfect study of imperfect people.
“Windfall” is streaming on Netflix now.