Netflix's Windfall is certainly entertaining, but very flawed...

Jesse Plemons with a gun to his head in Windfall
(Image credit: Netflix)

Netflix's latest original, Windfall, opens with a man (Jason Segel) sighing by a swimming pool, wandering aimlessly around a vast orange orchard and finally fidgeting in a Mediterranean-style villa in the picturesque mountainside city of Ojai. It appears we’re watching a multi-millionaire growing increasingly bored with his own existence. But the fact he then urinates in the shower and starts dusting every doorknob suggests things are amiss, even more so when a couple unexpectedly burst through the doors, forcing him to hide.

Yes, as Midsommar has proven, sun-soaked idyllic locations can often hide the darkest of truths. The man in question isn’t on vacation, he’s an intruder who’s about to disrupt the lives of a wealthy tech guru (Jesse Plemons) and his philanthropic other half (Lily Collins) in ways all three parties could never imagine.

Directed by Collins’ real-life husband Charlie McDowell, Windfall is something of a reunion movie. Both Plemons and Segel appeared in his previous effort, The Discovery, a melancholic sci-fi mystery which explored the possibility of an afterlife. There’s nothing remotely fantastical about its follow-up, yet this 90-minute three-hander (well, sort of) does share a similarly high stakes-low energy approach. 

A new twist on the home invasion horror?

Windfall may well be the most relaxed entry in the home invasion genre. The ‘victims’ (credited only as ‘CEO’ and ‘Wife’) treat their subsequent captivity as more of a mild inconvenience than a genuine threat to their lives. Perhaps that’s as a result of their privilege. Or perhaps it’s because the inability of their captor (credited simply as ‘Nobody’) to open a purse and tie a basic knot suggests they’re not dealing with a particularly seasoned criminal. 

In fact, the film’s first half-hour plays out more like a farce than a thriller: see Nobody haphazardly barricading the pair in a turned-off sauna before making his escape, or pathetically pleading with CEO to give up the chase on his begrudging return (“don’t make us run anymore”). Best-known for his everyman turns in How I Met Your Mother and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Segel soon makes it easy to sympathise with an opportunist who blatantly knows he’s way out of his depth. Even his captives show pity, offering to boost his ransom to a much heftier six-figure sum when the reveal of a hidden camera leads to a sudden renegotiation. 

With the trio forced to wait at least 24 hours for the money to transfer, Windfall essentially turns into a hangout movie for its middle third. And it’s here where Plemons truly gets to showcase a different side to his Oscar-nominated turn in The Power of the Dog. Whereas his rancher George is a good-natured spirit in Jane Campion’s sprawling western, his CEO here is self-absorbed, unsympathetic and, when it comes to his marriage, in particular, incredibly passive-aggressive.


(Image credit: Netflix)

Within seconds of being introduced, he’s berating Collins’ character for conversing in a different room. He also cruelly mocks the foot tattoo she’s in the process of removing and belittles her less affluent background. But the most telling signs about the state of their relationship are the more subtle: forgetting which type of charity fundraiser was responsible for their meet-cute, for example, or their contrasting reactions to a late-night viewing of The Three Amigos.   

Plemons avoids leaning too far into moustache-twirling Elon Musk-esque supervillain territory, his apparent resentment towards the rest of the world only spilling out with the occasional whiney outburst (“Try being a rich white guy these days”) or speech that could have been lifted from a Daily Mail front page. We never learn exactly how he made his fortune, but it’s clear that money hasn’t bought him happiness or rid him of insecurity. Even when sat opposite a low-level crook, he feels the need to assert his superiority (“Whatever I’m rumored to be worth, it’s much more”). 

Collins has to wait a little longer to make as much of an impression. Wife is largely treated as just that, a younger trophy rescued from the burden of student debt whose own efforts to change the world are constantly undermined. Still, as Nobody points out during a midnight fireside chat which hints things are about to get even cosier, she’s not exactly the innocent she purports to be either. As the film reaches its Hitchcockian final third the guessing games are in full force. 

Of course, this dramatic shift has already been heavily signposted by composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. Their ominous score, all twitchy percussion and moody woodwind, leaves little doubt about which direction the film will head towards. Unfortunately, its constant mirroring of the on-screen action borders on the obtrusive. Isiah Donté Lee’s sumptuous cinematography, on the other hand, is far more ambiguous, with its slow panning shots of the boundless California landscape painting a picture of both paradise and prison.  

Windfall - worth an investment?

Although McDowell admits he was inspired by lockdown life, he has understandably been keen to distance the film from the ‘pandemic movie’ tag, a subgenre which has given us bombs such as Songbird, Coastal Elites and Locked Down. While the movie does share elements of the latter’s ‘rich people have problems too’ narrative, it’s far more effective at maintaining a sense of both claustrophobia – even with the multiple guest rooms and outdoor cinema – and isolation. No one can hear you scream in Ojai.  

Like McDowell’s other work, Windfall does frustratingly leave a handful of questions unanswered, and more pressing ones than just ‘what are the character’s names?’ too. Nor does it do enough to justify the last and wildest swing in tone during its secret-spilling denouement. Nevertheless, with its skilful juggling of slow-building horror, social commentary and awkward comedy elsewhere, this is still an entertainingly ambitious, if ultimately flawed, attempt to hit the neo-noir jackpot.  

Windfall is available to stream now on Netflix.