‘I’m a social worker with a f**king gun,’ announces Parker Jode (Shea Whigham) in Michelle Civetta’s hard-boiled crime thriller, and you wouldn’t argue with him. Parker is one tough hombre, and he’s not about to take any nonsense, least of all from the two unfortunates who happen to boost his car stereo while he’s calling in a fatal overdose. The notion of an armed social worker is a novel one; Parker acts more like a driven detective, but The Gateway manages to defuse genre clichés with a smart line in social commentary.
In rough and ready St Louis, Parker has taken an interest in a family; Ashley (Teagen Burns) and her mom Dahlia (Olivia Munn) who are waiting for the return of the prodigal father. Mike (Zach Avery) is getting out of jail, and he’s got his eye firmly on retrieving some large chunks of illegal drugs. That puts Mike on a collision course with Parker, and leads to Parker taking the family on the run, with no notion that they’ve actually taken Mike’s prized stash with them.
The Gateway’s title is explained in a religious speech in the final minutes, but it could easily apply to the notion of gateway drugs; everyone in this film is suffering from some kind of delusion that gets shaken out of them by harsh reality. Parker may be hardened to the vagaries of life, but he’s unprepared for the savagery of the forces he runs up against; there’s some pretty bad-ass scenes here, brutal robberies and foot chases with edge. What elevates this film are the performances; genre fans will be attracted to see hard-man’s hard-man Frank Grillo as mob-boss Duke, and particularly an expansive turn by Bruce Dern, who plays Parkers dad with some depth; a Vietnam vet from My Lai, a keen reader, a jazz trumpeter, he’s initially willing to help Parker until he discovers the bricks of heroin that his son brings to his house, Night of the Hunter-style. But Whigham, Munn and Avery all do well to convey the intensity of their characters, helped by a script that allows them to be articulate about the situation they’re in.
The Gateway can be filed alongside accomplished crime dramas like The Lookout, which mines a fresh seam of drama from the lives of those on the wrong side of the law. Pretty much everyone in The Gateway feels that America is going to hell, and they’re all willing to share their working, even if they all see different reasons for the decline. The Gateway should find an audience through the familiarity of Wingham and Munn from superhero movies Joker and X-Men respectively, but it should also appeal to those who seek something less cartoonish than most thrillers offer. Refreshingly squalid in scope, with action scenes deliberately searing the eyes with intrusive blasts of white light, and with contrasting blasts of music on the soundtrack, The Gateway has all the downbeat grit that an adult audience could demand from a late-night thriller.
The Gateway is out now in the US. In the UK, Signature Entertainment presents The Gateway on Digital Platforms 27th September & DVD 5th October.