There’s an air of tense possibility during the opening title sequence of “Windfall,” a Netflix film that’s being rather boldly marketed as “a Hitchcockian thriller.” A single, static shot of a sunny patio outside a picturesque villa is paired with a suggestively sinister soundtrack (a dead ringer for the oft-emulated “Vertigo” score), building an atmosphere that’s almost too still for comfort.
The action that follows, however, soon deflates our mild anticipation, offering up little more than an ultimately dull narrative about a rich married couple (Lily Collins and Jesse Plemons), who arrive at their vacation home to find it being robbed by a strange man (Jason Segel). It’s a film that relies too heavily upon its scenic location and not enough on building any real sense of story, let alone suspense, and only adds to the growing feeling that, when a work calls itself “Hitchcockian,” it’s more of a red flag for something half-baked than an enticing homage to the master himself.
It’s not surprising that writer-director Charlie McDowell built the story around the setting, rather than the other way around. Conceived of together with Segal and co-writers Andrew Kevin Walker (“Se7en”) and Justin Lader, the film follows a similar formula to McDowell’s first feature “The One I Love,” a surrealist 2014 romance that was likewise shot in a single vacation house and its property. While you might expect — and hope — that this film contains a similarly playful, otherworldly twist that made that one location relatively fascinating, here, we remain firmly, tediously rooted in reality.
“Windfall” begins with a wordless sequence that follows a nameless man (Segel, credited as “Nobody”), traipsing around the extensive property’s pool, orange grove, and charming interiors (as well as taking a piss in the shower). His motives are murky from the beginning — is he waiting for someone to come home or simply passing through? Is he robbing the house or just hanging out? McDowell seems to have forgotten that Hitchcock was many things, but “subtle” was seldom one of them — especially during wordless scenes that convey their meaning through glances and camera movement alone.
Messy editing makes for a sequence that doesn’t spell things out as neatly as McDowell seems to think, leaving us confused about plot points Nobody refers to later in the film, and unmoored from the story as a whole.
When the couple unexpectedly arrives home, Nobody panics and decides to kidnap them, seemingly having no other choice. Plemons and Collins (credited as “Husband” and “Wife”) are relatively cool customers for whom we discover money is no object — Husband is a billionaire who invented an algorithm that helps companies downsize their staff — so they’re more than willing to offer Nobody enough to start a new life after he realizes he’s been recorded on a security camera. As they calmly wait for the $500,000 in cash to arrive the next day (Nobody asks for $150,000, but in one of the film’s genuinely amusing moments, they force him to negotiate up to be more realistic about the cost of living), the three are stuck together in the house, in a situation that’s more interminable than tense.
They pass the time wandering the property and watching movies, all three characters thoroughly level-headed throughout. As they talk, little bits of backstory on Husband and Wife’s marriage emerge, revealing small cracks in their seemingly perfect facade. Wife, who was an assistant before she married Husband, and now manages their philanthropic pursuits, gives a nuanced performance as someone who still has her humanity intact. Meanwhile, Husband becomes more and more monstrous, and we begin to observe a rift between the two that Segel’s presence has only widened.
Husband gradually starts to toy with the intruder — who becomes more and more likable in comparison, both to Collins and to us — asking him which company he was let go from, and berating people these days for being “lazy fucking loafers and freeloaders” (echoing Kim Kardashian’s recent tone-deaf comment that “Nobody wants to work these days.”). As each character begins to reveal their true colors, our feelings about who’s the hero and who’s the villain are meant to become muddled. But without a clear sense of tone, we search for more meaning than the film is capable of giving, always waiting for the ironic or surreal twist that never comes. We’re mercifully granted an ounce of excitement at the film’s end, though it’s as confused about its own provocations as the opening sequence.
Inserting an outsider into a bourgeois space can be an incredible fruitful set-up for a film — think “Parasite,” “Teorema,” or “The Plumber,” which all witness the highly organized worlds of the upper classes descend into chaos once someone beyond their sphere intrudes. But “Windfall” doesn’t explore these ideas enough, and is instead pulled in too many different directions to land on any sense of profundity. It should be commended, however, for making its flawless setting as claustrophobic for us as it is for the three characters. By the end, we’re so suffocated with gorgeous countertops, well-appointed guest casitas, Rolex watches, and zen gardens that we’re all too happy to finally escape.
“Windfall” is now streaming on Netflix.