Everything about Charlie McDowell’s new film, Windfall — the marketing, the design, even the opening credits — promises a Hitchcock-meets-mumblecore experience. The film begins with a long, still shot of the luxury mission-style home in which the drama will unfold. Underneath this oddly still image, a tense soundtrack plays, one that sounds like Bernard Herrmann composed music for a meditation app.
What follows with Windfall keeps better company with a cycle of high-strung art dramas that centre on horrible white millennials — sometimes rich, always lonely — stalking around luxury spaces and fairy-lit barns. Its contemporaries include Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear, a superbly weird hipster nightmare; the chilling, claustrophobic odyssey that is Night Moves; and, lest we forget, Ex Machina, which gave us the Oscar Isaac meme that belongs in whatever time capsule we one day send into space.
So, where, exactly, does Windfall fall?
It cannot be a psychological thriller, because it doesn’t thrill, nor is it particularly interested in the psychology of its three principal characters. Windfall is best categorised as a neo-noir, a revisiting of the classic postwar genre that combined glamour with nihilism and used stark lighting to tell stories of moral grayness. (The setting of Windfall, even, is neatly described by a line from the 1944 noir Double Indemnity: “One of those California Spanish houses everyone was nuts about ten or fifteen years ago.”)
Director McDowell and screenwriters Justin Lader and Andrew Kevin Walker take the vintage foundation of the SoCal noir and jazz it up with modern updates. Instead of a gangster kingpin, we have a tech billionaire husband (Jesse Plemons), and, in the place of a doe-eyed moll, we have the ostensible “trophy wife” who runs his charitable foundation (Lily Collins).
The problem with the remodel process, in homes and in art, is that any attempt to refurbish the past runs the risk of ignoring what gave the original its appeal. In Windfall, the bones of the old noir remain, but something central to the genre has been lost in the renovation. We find ourselves led, without allure, down familiar winding paths which attempt to conjure a sense of intrigue. What is missing? Sex, obviously.
Sex is what is missing here. Style is also essential — and the movie has it in droves — but style without sex is… what? It’s architecture or fashion without the things in them that move us. It’s geometry, and I dare you to get revved up gazing at a protractor.
But, I digress. The action of Windfall centres on what happens when the couple, who remain nameless throughout the film, walk in on their holiday home being robbed by a bedraggled drifter (Jason Segel). At best the drifter is an amateur criminal, but he manages, despite a series of blunders, to demand from his captives a duffle bag full of cash, funds to start a new life. Much changes over the course of the film’s ninety-two minutes, but not a lot happens.
The first third broaches the contemporary satire that Windfall could be but never becomes. Plemons’s character triumphantly graces the cover of a magazine, deemed a “super disrupter,” but his predilection for NDAs suggests he is business as usual. And Collins’s portrayal of the wife’s prickly defense of her work for his charitable wing — “the results speak for themselves” — is not only funny because of the awkward use of corporate speak to describe humanitarian efforts, but she delivers the line whilst being held hostage by a man who (probably) lost his job due to her husband’s slash-and-burn, corporate-Darwinian worldview. The results speak for themselves? They sure do.
It is too bad the movie doesn’t lean in — into its meanness and the unique hypocrisies that these three characters have to offer. Instead, the action stages, literally and figuratively, the triangulations that might exist between husband, wife, and strong but gentle masculine interloper. The spatial coordinates of these people, how they move in relation to each other, who obscures whom in any given shot, are interesting to observe, but they also reveal how the germ of Windfall was really its sleek, sophisticated setting, not the drama or its players.
While the actors do their level best to ramp up the drama, the characters are underwritten beyond what is needed to pull off a twisty mystery plot. Of the three, it is Collins’s wife whom we get to know the best, and, to quote the kidnapper (in context), “I don’t give a fuck.” The screenwriters seem to be making a point with this, driving it home with another one of the kidnapper’s lines: “I think the less we know about each other, the better, don’t you?” I’m not sure I agree.
I will also say when the kidnapper admits he wanted the tech billionaire to be a boy scout, morally worthy of his obscene wealth, I wondered if he had ever, like, read a newspaper. And when the billionaire yells, “Why do we keep pretending this guy is an actual threat?” I threw up in my hands in agreement. Maybe this guy is a super-disrupter after all!
None of this is to say that I wanted the characters to be more likable — quite the opposite. I wanted to hate them more and love them more; in the tradition of the film noir, I wanted to be sucked, starry-eyed and stupid, into the abyss. The main characters in Windfall are overly interested in their own goodness and rightness, even the entitled billionaire who can’t stop complaining about “cancel culture” even with his wife’s life on the line, even the kidnapper only now realising that the free market ain’t free. Where is the lust, the danger, the gleeful amorality of the noir?
Where is the sex?
By sex, I naturally don’t mean the R-rated content that the Hays Production Code out-and-out banned and for which filmmakers found coy, clever workarounds. I am referring to what these classic films deployed instead of explicitness: the lyricism and tang of a line like “I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic”; the sight of Gilda bouncing her curls out of her face, the defiant masquerade that made Rita Hayworth a star; Robert Mitchum’s horny boredom as his beautiful former lover explains she’s not a thief, to which he intones, “Baby, I don’t care.” The best noirs — and neo-noirs too — follow characters who are jaded, charismatic, and deadly. We don’t want to know them, we want to be them.
The sexiest, most California element of Windfall is not its human characters, then, but the evocative orange grove that surrounds the billionaire’s home. In the one-man opening of the film, Segel’s character wanders around the property, at one point ripping apart a pilfered orange in his dirty hands; later, he chases Plemons’s character around the grove and tackles him to the ground, the two wrestling in a way that suggests that neither knows how to fight.
Just as, in Double Indemnity, “murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle,” the seductive sight, smell, and taste of the orange gestures toward what the best possible version of Windfall might be. After all, it is not the tantalizing, sometimes sour, fruit at play here, but its mixed history — the sunny public relations around the orange and, with it, the marketing of the state of California; pay no mind to the exploited immigrant labor working behind the scenes, or the mixture of citrus perfume and manure.
Over time, orange groves have become a rarity in California, a water-intensive crop in a desirable region for high-end homes. Not only does the tech billionaire have access to this idyllic grove, but he lives in a picture postcard of California lore that he is helping to destroy. How vile, how seductive… how on-brand.
That tension between the tart and the rotten, the exploration of the ugliness behind the luxury, speaks to all the suspicious pleasures the noir has to offer. Turns out that Windfall does have some sex in it, as the orange steals the show, a prime candidate for the moniker of femme fatale.
Annie Berke is the film editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and author of Their Own Best Creations: Women Writers in Postwar Television (University of California Press, 2022).
Featured image: Jason Segel, Lily Collins, and Jesse Plemons in a still from Windfall/Netflix
This article was first published on Jacobin. Read it here.