Italian director Michele Civetta has had a varied career to date directing music videos for the likes of Lou Reed, Sean Lennon and Yoko Ono and directing adverts for Coca-Cola and Martini & Rossi. His feature film debut was 2020’s Agony, a thriller that earnt middling reviews. Civetta’s second film The Gateway is again a thriller focusing on Parker Jode (Shea Whigham) a social worker working for St Louis city.
Parker looks out for those he is charged to care for and the bulk of the film focuses on his relationship with Ashley and her mother Dahlia (Olivia Munn). Dahlia is the sole carer for Ashley, but often lacking in her life and failing to turn up to drive her to school, seemingly having issues with drink, thus leading Parker onto the family’s case.
It is refreshing to see Shea Whigham in the lead role, as he is so often a standout supporting actor in the likes of First Man, Joker, Silver Linings Playbook and Boardwalk Empire. While Whigham does his best in the role, bringing a sense of world weariness and commitment to his job, the film doesn’t maximise the character’s potential. Whigham does much of his best work silently brooding, whether that’s in a bar after work or driving around monitoring vulnerable families.
At one point we are told Parker is helping others because there was no one to help him when he needed it most, but his backstory isn’t sufficiently developed to expand on this. His relationship with Bruce Dern’s Marcus is only fleetingly touched on, not giving us enough of a sense of what the pair has been through and why their relationship is strained.
The action sequences are a standout, used sparingly but well-shot and quite brutal in places, to give the community a sense of danger, indicating the threat facing Parker and the children he wants to see looked after. While the action is thrilling, it almost feels as if it belongs in a different film. Greater emphasis could have been placed on the criminal underworld and more noir, gritty elements of the story. Frank Grillo’s Duke is far too much of an extended cameo for us to learn anything about his character beyond his desire to pedal drugs and exert influence over the underworld. His character acts mostly as a channel for Mike Montrose, Dahlia’s husband and Hannah’s father who has recently been released from prison and returned into their lives making Parker worry about the pair’s safety. Mike is one of the standouts (played by Zach Avery), while his part could seem clichéd, there is a genuine sense of unpredictability to his actions leaving the audience second guessing if he will explode into a burst of violence.
Narratively speaking, the film can’t quite decide if it wants to be a gritty thriller with its action evoking the 90s films of Michael Mann and with comparisons drawn to Drive and Dirty Harry. The relatively short runtime of just under 90 minutes means that we are given limited opportunity to get a glimpse into the lives of the characters, save Parker, and this wastes a talented supporting cast including Olivia Munn, Grillo and Dern.
Perhaps some of the narrative confusion stems from the script being on the blacklist for nearly a decade. There are attempts to talk about the care system in the US and police corruption, with Dahlia being stopped by the police at one point without reason to check for drugs. The film fails to fully commit to these points, making them seem wasted.
The Gateway is an intriguing film boasting a talented cast and some solid set pieces. Shea Whigham and Zach Avery, in particular, give strong performances but are let down somewhat by the film’s pacing, the narrative and confusion about what genre it wants to be. It is enjoyable enough and not without merits, but frustratingly wastes many of its strongest elements, especially its premise and cast. The marriage of social commentary and neo-noir thriller doesn’t quite work, but there are glimpses of potential from Civetta and hopefully he is able to build on these for his future projects.
Signature Entertainment presents The Gateway on Digital Platforms 27 September & DVD 5 October, 2021