The Gateway, 2021.
Directed by Michele Civetta.
Starring Shea Whigham, Olivia Munn, Taryn Manning, Frank Grillo, Bruce Dern, Keith David, Mark Boone Junior, Zach Avery, Alexander Wraith, Jay Hieron, Taegen Burns, Nick Daly, Richard Strauss, and Shannon Adawn.
A social worker assigned to the care of the daughter of a single mother intervenes when the dad returns from prison and lures them into a life of crime.
Stay with me here: The Gateway (directed by Michele Civetta, co-writing alongside Andrew Levitas and working from Alex Felix Bendaña’s screen story) follows former boxer turned gun-carrying social worker with a heart of gold, Parker (Shea Whigham, who comes across more like a hard-boiled detective than anything), as he goes above and beyond the call to ensure those involved in his cases remain safe and in healthy living conditions. Of course, things don’t always end optimistically, as the prologue sees Parker entering a housing complex where a young boy’s mom has overdosed on drugs. Parker also comes from a broken home himself (drunkenly driving around his father’s residence at night, played by an expectedly shouting Bruce Dern, wrestling internally with whether or not to resolve that baggage), which has made him a more compassionate fit for the job with elevated sympathy to such a degree that he will put his life on the line to protect families he barely knows.
Speaking of crossing the line into danger, one of Parker’s primary cases is for an elementary school-aged girl named Ashley (Taegen Burns) that, upon us first meeting these characters, he finds himself driving to school (missing a window and a car stereo coming from a fairly racist scene that’s, unfortunately, not the only tone-deaf depiction of minorities in this crime thriller bursting with stereotypes). Ashley’s mom Dahlia (Olivia Munn), regularly works the night shift at a casino, explaining part of her tardiness. However, it also turns out she is sleeping with one of her co-workers. Hence, Parker ensures Ashley is properly provided and cared for.
Again, Parker is about to get more than he bargained for as Dahlia’s partner Mike (Zach Avery, playing an entirely one-dimensional villain that’s nonetheless easy to hate given the belligerent nature of the performance combined with domestic abuse) has been sprung from jail after a four-year stint. With menacing and controlling force, he barges back into their lives, ready to push away anyone Dahlia associates with and especially anyone that could be considered a potential replacement partner, including our heroic social worker that can’t help himself from poking his nose into the situation.
But he’s a social worker; he has every right to pry, you might ask. Well, yes and no. Due to some embarrassingly contrived plotting, Parker loses his position for punching his immature superior cracking jokes about sexual harassment and the importance of their line of work. For the plot, this is necessary because Mike (working for a shady man played by Frank Grillo) is planning a drug heist from the Mexican cartel. Among all the other terrible things listed, Mike is also a psychopath and liar, telling Dahlia that he would never do anything to endanger their family (especially his daughter Ashley) one minute, only to make a “business” related phone call afterward. In other movies, similar criminals who do horrific things appear to have a small amount of affection or care for the children. In contrast, here, Mike is too busy stuck in generic bad guy mode ever to be given a dash of complexity.
The sainthood applied to Parker is fairly uninteresting, making him bland in a different way, but it would be unfair to say that Shea Whigham is bad, and the same goes for Zach Avery, who you can’t resist wanting to see eat a bullet. However, if there is a noteworthy performance in The Gateway, it does come from Olivia Munn’s Dahlia, who clearly isn’t buying any of Mike’s BS but ends up lashing out at the ones that do care for fear of accidentally roping them into this living nightmare. Local detectives familiar with Mike’s behavior are also aware of the heist gone wrong (not just in terms of the story, as it’s also an ambitious one-take shot that’s hideously overly lit) and are coming down searching hard.
There’s a stretch for roughly 20 minutes where The Gateway is suspenseful, with the protagonists unknowingly in possession of the drugs as Mike and his henchmen are in hot pursuit to retrieve them for completing the deal. There’s an anxiety of both hope and fear wanting these characters to discover what they are in possession of and what’s actually going on. It also makes up for a bumpy first act that’s all over the place (Parker has a one-night stand with a woman at a bar, played by Taryn Manning, as she tries to explore his issues), somewhat racist, exploitative, and all-around trashy.
The Gateway then promptly descends into bloodshed as a result of characters making illogical decisions. It concludes with a statistic mentioning 250,000 kids enter the foster system every year, so it appears that the film’s heart is in the right place, but the execution is routine with cluttered action. There are also moments of either bad editing or Bruce Dern oblivious to what’s even going on in the story. The film itself operates as boisterously as Bruce Dern when the sensitive material often requires a more low-key, humanizing touch. Any thrills to be found are surface value machismo that’s instantly forgettable. Still, there is some enjoyment in sticking it out, even though the ending couldn’t be any more telegraphed.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com