“The Gateway,” is set in St. Louis but shot on the coast of Virginia, attempts to grapple with complex societal problems while sporting the vivid hues of a stylized neo-noir. Still, it allows itself to be tugged in too many directions for any of them to be well-realized. Nonetheless, commercials and music video director Michele Civetta improves on his debut movie, the occult jumble “Agony,” with more control over actors and pacing. The unlikely yet entertaining Lionsgate film will be available in select cinemas, on-demand, and digitally on September 3, with disc formats following a week later.
Parker Jode (Shea Whigham) was raised in a foster family following his mother’s death overdose and his father’s desertion. He is a still-punchy former pro fighter who now attempts to rebuild other people’s families as a state social worker. In that capacity, he has taken a paternal interest in Ashley (Taegen Burns), even transporting her to school when her mother, Dahlia (Olivia Munn), arrives.
But when Mike (Zach Avery) gets released from jail, he immediately moves back in with his wife and kid – whether they like it or not. While working with local criminal lord Duke (Frank Grillo), his previous transgressions almost lost Dahlia’s custody of Ashley. Nonetheless, he swiftly returns to that life while simultaneously reinforcing his reputation as a liar, wife-beater, and pathologically jealous husband.
An armed heist on Duke’s behalf turns into a slaughter, sending authorities back on the trail of apparent suspect Frank. However, the use of his child as an unsuspecting carrier for stolen heroin bricks finally leads to our heroes fleeing from violent thugs. This is unfortunate, as protective Parker no longer has governmental power after being dismissed for striking an annoying employee. The situation pushes Marcus to reconcile with his ne’er-do-well father, cleaned-up jazz artist Marcus (Bruce Dern).
“The Gateway” moves swiftly enough to keep the audience’s attention, if not to conceal its many component pieces, let alone blend them into a unified picture. Characters appear to have been plucked from one genre cliché-book or another, but they sometimes open their lips to pontificate on American imperialism or systemic corruption. The film’s sincere, often maudlin treatment of abuse concerns conflicts with its fussy aesthetics, Parker’s rockabilly bouffant, candy-colored lighting flanking maneuvers, or a gunfight in a bordello that seems to be a series of art exhibits all reflect this.
Civetta is Asia Argento’s ex-husband, whom he burdened with an overabundance of histrionics in the Italy-shot Gothic thriller “Agony.” The frequent mismatch between style and substance in this film is reminiscent of her directorial debut, “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things,” where horrific events were presented in an affectedly prettified manner. As they hang out in garishly decorated dive bars and brilliantly colored alleys, “The Gateway” frequently appears to be more concerned in imbuing its male figures with Tarantino-esque hipster flair than addressing seriously the miseries of crime, poverty, and substance addiction in which they live.
If “Agony” seemed both lifeless and ludicrous, this sophomore film had more overall narrative momentum but without much talent for tension building. The use of retro-sounding funk, R&B, and soul tunes appropriate for a good-time caper picture reduces the imprecisely produced violent action. These choices strengthen the film’s appearance in an artificially exoticized South, more Memphis-of-the-mind noir than “gateway to the West” St. Louis, with its tragically high murder rate.
There’s also a clunker of a fadeout when a film with limited opportunity for African American characters (apart from a single scene for Keith David) unleashes a discordant barrage of the churchy pulpit and gospel choir enthusiasm as if it had always prioritized a “Black Lives Matter” theme. You can’t claim Civetta and his two co-writers don’t have strong feelings regarding the status of the United States. However, in what eventually plays as a manufactured potboiler, those concepts come off as crowded and half-baked. Due to revisions made since Alex Felix Bendana’s original screenplay (then titled “Where Angels Die”) appeared on the Black List of highly rated unproduced scripts over a decade ago.
Despite having so many individual errors that add up to a rough total, “The Gateway” manages to go down quite quickly, owing in large part to a cast as colorful as the somewhat showy visual package. No one receives more than a few exterior features in this part (and the ladies even less), but the performers try their best to give hard-living feelings. Avery’s performance is perhaps the best, even though she, like everyone else here, has to deal with some clunky, on-the-nose language. Nonetheless, he transforms Mike, a potential cardboard villain, into a terrifyingly credible psychopath who is constantly a hair’s width away from erupting into violence.