There’s something about the presence of actor Shea Whigham in pretty much anything that makes me feel better about whatever it is I’m watching. With nearly 100 film and television credits to his name—everything from American Hustle and Take Shelter to The Wolf of Wall Street, a couple of the Fast & Furious movies, and even the two upcoming Mission: Impossible films—Wigham is as dependable a character actor as there is working today, and he can play wiseguy and wise-ass with equal conviction. But The Gateway is something different for Whigham, because it gives him a rare leading role as Parker, an alcoholic St. Louis social worker who cares so much about those in his care that he almost absorbs their problems and makes them his own, at great cost to his own soul.
Part of the reason Parker became a social worker is because he is a product of the foster care system after being dumped there by his musician father shortly after his mother died. He came out of the system alive but angry and eager to make certain as many of his clients stay straight so their kids don’t have to go through what he did. Parker also used to be a fairly successful boxer, which was a great way to get out aggression and bring the inner pain out, if only for a few minutes. Lest you think Parker’s troubled past doesn’t haunt him today, he makes regular drive-bys past the house of his estranged father Marcus (Bruce Dern), just to see if he has the courage on any given day to go up to the door and knock the old man out. And Whigham wears all of that resentment and rejection on his face and in the way her carries himself; everyone who runs into him reminds him that he looks like shit, and he never disputes that. None of which makes him any less a social worker. In fact, he’s one of the best the state has.
One family he’s particularly close to is mom Dahlia (Olivia Munn), a dealer at the local riverside casino, and her daughter Ashley (Taegen Burns). Parker visits them fairly regularly and even helps them out in small emergencies, like giving Ashley rides to school when Dahlia is late home from work or an overnight date. Trouble begins when Dahlia’a husband Mike (Zach Avery) get released from prison, and before he even heads home to reunite with his family, he goes to a bar to meet an old criminal partner, Duke (Frank Grillo), who has a job for him that involves robbing a local drug cartel’s stash house and relieving them of their product. The heist goes sideways fast and many of the cartel’s men get killed while Mike and his team eventually make off with the drugs, which Mike brings into the house with his wife and daughter. Because Mike is a natural-born asshole, he gets jealous of Parker’s involvement with his family and takes it out on Dahlia almost immediately.
Director Michele Civetta (Agony) has a real feel for the underbelly of St. Louis (even thought the film was shot near Norfolk, Virginia), and I really like the smaller details he fills the movie with, including some of the smaller supporting players, like Taryn Manning as a barfly in the establishment that Parker frequents, which is run by Mark Boone Junior’s Gary, who might be Parker’s best friend. Keith David shows up in one especially telling scene as an old acquaintance of Parker’s from his foster home days. And keep an eye out for Shannon Adawn as the fiery Detective King, who is searching for evidence that Mike was involved in the drug heist. It’s a fantastic and unexpected take on the traditional investigator role, and she really stands out here.
The film’s big showdown involves Mike putting the drugs in his daughter’s backpack just before she heads to school, just to get them out of the house unnoticed, hoping an accomplice can get them from her later that day. Naturally, things go sideways, and before long Mike is chasing Parker and his family across town, more concerned about retrieving his stash and saving his bacon than getting his family back. Guns explode, bodies drop, and all the while, Parker is desperate to save this family that isn’t his because it’s the closest thing he has to one. The Gateway is surprisingly emotional, beautifully acted by all, and impressive at capturing the grittiness of Parker’s world and the world of those he wants to save. Whigham doesn’t get many opportunities to shine quite the brightly as the front-and-center star of any film, so it would be a shame to miss him play as strong and masterfully as he does here.
The film opens Friday in theaters and on VOD.
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