This installment of Performance Review comes with the gentle reminder that the series is not designed to appraise each film it features as a whole. Rather, it reviews the performances found in each one. That is good news for Michele Civetta’s sophomore feature endeavor, which the filmmaker both directed and co-wrote. The Gateway starts strong, demonstrating some innovative and well-executed camera work while introducing us to the world of Parker Jode (Shea Whigham), a social worker in St. Louis assigned to the case of Dahlia (Olivia Munn) and her daughter Ashley (Taegen Burns). But as the film progresses, its story and dialogue go south.
Through it all, Whigham shines as the lead. It may come as no surprise for those familiar with his work across film and TV. Whether it be his recent turn opposite Michael Shannon in Scott Teems’ The Quarry or appearing with Matthew Rhys in HBO’s Perry Mason, Whigham is a powerhouse performer. In an interview with Vulture, Homecoming co-creator and season one director Sam Esmail deftly summed up his talent. “I’ve never seen a guy so committed to expressing something genuine at every moment,” Esmail asserted.
The Gateway is essentially a showcase for that skill Whigham possesses of grounding every scene he’s in, regardless of the writing. He even pulls off lines like, “keeping the streets safe ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.” Whigham brings to life the tough guy with a heart of gold character in a way that feels fresh and innovative. Parker frequently has a cigarette hanging from his lips and a seemingly never-ending supply of mini liquor bottles that he knocks back throughout the day. When he needs something a little stronger, he’ll take a bump of cocaine. But Whigham makes the transition look smooth and organic when his character comes in contact with a child who needs help. His tone softens, and the intensity that’s always bubbling below Parker’s surface is channeled into creating a safe space for them.
As someone who grew up in an unstable home and later in the foster care system, Parker’s mission to protect those in his care makes sense, but it is Whigham who causes us to believe the character’s unshakeable purpose. He may not always be the best role model — instances in which he punches a co-worker in the face and pulls a gun on two punks who stole his stereo come to mind — but he’ll put his own life on the line when it comes to keeping safe those who can’t protect themselves.
The people in this instance are Dahlia and Ashley, who are threatened by their connection to Mike (Zach Avery), the former’s estranged husband and the latter’s father. Avery is not entirely believable as the ex-con type he plays, although his intimidating physique fits the bill. Munn and Burns pull their weight as a connected mother-daughter duo, especially during the first half of the film before the story unravels.
Taryn Manning makes a cameo as another patron of Parker’s go-to watering hole, with whom he has a one-night stand. Keith David plays a retired social worker and appears in one scene that doesn’t serve much of a purpose story-wise, but we’re always happy for a chance to see the talented thespian at work. Frank Grillo gives a standout performance as Mike’s crime boss, grounding a power-drunk character who others would’ve made into a caricature. And then there’s Bruce Dern as Parker’s estranged father. While it’s unfortunate that he appears mostly in the film’s weak latter half, the veteran actor still delivers dialed-in work that reminds us why Dern is a screen icon.
Lionsgate is slated to release The Gateway on demand and digitally on September 3.