THIS WEEKEND WE'RE WATCHING
Windfall – a Hitchcockian thriller about wealth-hoarding
Windfall is a sardonic Hitchcockian thriller on Netflix with sharp comedy and social commentary about a filthy-rich tech mogul who arrives at his holiday home with his wife only to be held captive by a seemingly clueless robber.
Many don’t know that Alfred Hitchcock, nicknamed The Master of Suspense, intended his most famous movie, the 1960 thriller-horror Psycho (the most profitable black-and-white film ever made) as a comedy. “I was horrified that people took it seriously,” he said. He intended it as a mocking attack on the horror genre that would have audiences screaming from equal parts fear and laughter, but he was so adept at building tension, that Psycho became one of the most legendary horrors of cinema and pop culture.
Charlie McDowell’s new film, Windfall, is a Hitchcockian thriller, which is to say that it joins a long list of films made in tribute to and in the stylistic tradition of the Master of Suspense. Tension is steadily increased by restricting the action to a single setting like a pressure cooker, and the establishment of a Macguffin plot device (a recurring object or event that is insignificant in itself but turns out to be essential to the plot) creates intrigue. The characters become agitated, fickle and prone to suddenly switching sides, and the anticipation becomes so stressful that audiences actually enjoy the relief of a conflict’s resolution, even if it entails life-threatening or fatal situations
But Windfall also uses its resemblance to Hitchcock’s films to mislead you into anticipating twists incorrectly; and an overly dramatic score reveals right from the opening credits scene that the film is not meant to be taken entirely seriously (just as Hitchcock intended in Psycho with Murder, the musical theme written by Bernard Herrmann).
Some people have started seeing “lockdown films” the way some meat eaters see vegan pastries. They were novel at first but now the carnivores just assume it won’t be up to scratch because of the limited ingredient possibilities. Windfall is a perfect example of why that is a misconception.
It was conceived during quarantine, produced in a relatively short space of time, the cast is just four people, and the entire film takes place on a single property, and yet, it seems unlikely that the film could have been improved by changing any of those aspects.
“We wrote the film to fit a specific space,” says McDowell. “Every single space you see is somewhere on the property [which is in] Ojai, California where I grew up and it was actually about a mile away from where I shot my first film, The One I Love.”
This property, a gorgeous villa with an expansive orange orchard, lends itself well to the predator-prey dynamic of thriller-style hide-and-seek.
The film begins with a man (Jason Segel) enjoying a cup of orange juice and quietly surveying the orchard. There’s an aimlessness with which he meanders about the villa, and when he wipes his fingerprints off a door handle, we begin to understand – this is not his home.
We see a smug couple (Jesse Plemons and Lily Collins) in a shiny car arrive excitedly for their romantic vacation at the villa. None of the characters is named, they’re credited only as “Nobody”, “CEO” and “Wife”. Nobody creeps anxiously around the house as CEO and Wife start unpacking, the stress-machine score mirthfully chugging along until the sudden halt of his discovery.
What’s wonderful about Nobody as a character is how awkward and clueless he is. Criminals in films are often depicted as capable and confident in their misdeeds, but the anxiety and adrenalin most people would feel committing a violent crime, especially for the first time, is far more interesting.
There’s a twitchy comedy to Nobody’s floundering attempts to open the clasp of Wife’s purse. He doesn’t know how to restrain his captives or how much money to ask for, and they have to walk him through it. The balance of his control on the situation is so precarious.
Rather than reacting with fear, CEO seems irritated, like this dire situation is just some inconvenience that he’s in a rush to resolve. “What do you want? Money? Let me make that happen for you.” The back-and-forth of CEO’s undermining of Nobody’s authority makes for witty banter and the informality of their sardonic conversation in this severe situation has a moreish absurdity.
CEO and Wife just want to wring their hands of the situation. They reassure Nobody that they have given him everything, they have no security cameras or neighbours for miles and he should just be on his way. But something more contrived is going on here – Nobody seems to have known who CEO is and targeted him.
When CEO asks, “Were you on staff? Is that what this is?”, Nobody responds, “Not everybody works for you”. CEO is an insufferably pompous Zuckerbergian character who’s made huge money writing an algorithm for a big tech company that resulted in many people losing their jobs. Despite the function of his algorithm, he sees himself as blameless; even a philanthropist for creating an algorithm that he claims was bound to have been made eventually anyway.
He is an embodiment of hyper-capitalism, rationalising his wealth-hoarding with the age-old argument of meritocracy. “There is a trendy thing going around at the moment – I exist therefore you owe me. And that is the reason why we live in a world of fucking loafers and freeloaders.”
Even while attempting to be submissive and cooperative, CEO can’t shake his confident, patronising sarcasm, but Wife doesn’t seem to subscribe to the same nonsense rhetoric. She is positioned somewhere between CEO and Nobody ideologically, a perceptive, strong-willed woman who, in marrying CEO, made the questionable trade of her agency in exchange for privilege and opportunity.
Wife is clearly a little repulsed by her mogul husband, and Nobody, seeing this, can’t help but bait and berate her for her arrogance and hypocrisy. “I’m sorry I’m sure you’re a nice person but you’re not some victim. You know that, right? You’re just a person who made a trade. You’re just like the rest of us.”
McDowell talks about the film as a conversation about the moral compromises we make in exchange for comfort. “By the end, we are saying that everyone has a corrupt, greedy mind, and there isn’t a perfect character.”
The oranges of the orchard come to represent the hoarding of wealth, and this is the first clue to where the film gets its multilayered title. The term “windfall” refers to fruit blown from a tree by the wind, and is used metaphorically as something beneficial (like a large amount of money) gained unexpectedly.
McDowell has been friends with Jesse Plemons for many years, is married to Lily Collins and has worked with Jason Segel since film school. His familiarity with the trio would certainly have contributed to the riveting chemistry between the three of them that allows for unforced social commentary and great comedy.
Windfall would have made Hitchcock proud. It seems like the whole situation is tidily wrapped up after just 15 minutes and then several times after that, but each new twist, equal parts eerie and comedy, drags it out into a more and more elaborate conflict. As Wife says in the film, “I guess it’s one of those if-you-don’t-laugh-you-cry moments”. DM/ ML
Windfall is available in South Africa on Netflix from 18 March 2022.
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