The Gateway

The title The Gateway refers to the story's St. Louis setting. The movie was filmed in Norfolk, Virginia, though, which makes one wonder why they just didn't set it there instead. That may sound like a trivial complaint, and it is. But it's also one of the few things that genuinely stands out about the movie. Neither particularly good nor particularly bad, it exists in this weird middle ground where you watch it without ever feeling much of anything.

Shea Whigham plays Parker, a social worker who looks after a little girl named Ashley (Taegan Burns) and, by extension, her mother Dahlia (Olivia Munn). Parker is a dour guy, drawn to the job because of his own childhood trauma, hinted at in flashbacks. Trouble finds him when Dahlia's husband Mike (Zach Avery) is released from prison. He returns home to reclaim his family, and doesn't want Parker poking around. But Mike is also right back to his crooked ways, taking a job for a crime boss named Duke (Frank Grillo), so Parker can't bring himself to separate from the case.

That would be sufficient story for a 91-minute movie. Not for The Gateway. It includes a bunch of subplots that go nowhere. Bruce Dern plays Parker's estranged father, whom he's never forgiven for past deeds. Mark Boone Junior is his bartender pal; the movie inexplicably gives us several pointless scenes of the two men playing chess. Worst of all, Taryn Manning portrays a woman Parker meets in the bar and starts to date, only to be spontaneously dropped from the story partway through. Aside from the father, none of these characters contribute significantly to the plot, making one wonder why the film bothers with them in the first place.

The best scenes are the ones between Parker and Dahlia. The Gateway may have a very unrealistic sense of what social workers do – Parker shows up, mutters a few grievances, and leaves – yet their interactions are at least appropriate fuel for a thriller. Fearing Mike's wrath, Dahlia tries to push Parker out, despite realizing that she desperately needs his help. Whigham and Munn are good together, and the movie would have been vastly improved by digging into the idea that his character is a professional lifeline for hers during a troubled time.

Zach Avery is also strong as Mike. He effectively projects a menacing quality that makes him a potent villain. A lot more could have been done with the guy. The Gateway is not as much of a thriller as it claims to be, thanks to an excess of talkiness. Additional scenes of Mike confronting Parker might have added extra layers of tension. Instead of going that natural route, the film wastes time on those other superfluous characters. Why it so insistently minimizes its own drama is a mystery.

Sometimes all of us flip around the cable channels and settle in on a movie that's not good, but we watch it (or part of it) anyway because we don't have the energy to go do anything else. That's The Gateway. Lots of good actors trapped in a plot that perpetually spins its wheels.

out of four

The Gateway is rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, drug use, some sexual content and nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.