The Gateway, (not to be confused with the Irish folk horror Gateway), was directed by Michele Civetta (Agony), written by Civetta, Andrew Levitas (Lullaby, Minamata), and Alex Felix Bendana (Kismet), and stars Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire, Kong: Skull Island), Olivia Munn (Deliver Us from Evil, Office Christmas Party), Zach Avery (Trespassers, The Devil Below), Taegen Burns (Blue Ridge, The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers), Bruce Dern (Mid-Century, The Most Dangerous Game), Mark Boone Junior (30 Days of Night, Sons of Anarchy), Taryn Manning (Crossroads, Every Last One of Them), and Frank Grillo (Paradise Highway, Shattered). It’s about a social worker who charges himself with protecting a young girl from the criminal family that surrounds her.
The Plot: Not much that hasn’t been said or done is in place in The Gateway, as the writers opt to tell a story of a hard-boiled man protecting a child from the world’s uncaring lands, but this rendering of that old chestnut is more intimate than most; never contrived, and never boring, even if it loses plausibility by the end.
In the throes of St. Louis’s ghettos, social services worker Parker (Whigham) finds more of the same on the clock: drug addicts and neglected kids. It’s a heavy opener that sets a realistic tone and focuses on the feature to come. These items make it through most of The Gateway, but unfortunately, get dropped later on. One case that Parker has his eye set on is Ashley (Burns), whose mother Dahlia (Munn) isn’t in the best of states, leaving him to take Ashley to school and be a makeshift parent when available.
His job gets more complicated when Mike (Avery), Ashley’s father, gets out of prison and returns to pusher Duke (Grillo) with a proposition of stealing drugs from the Mexican cartel. Before the job is executed and Parker’s hand forced into protection, he hesitates to stop by his father Marcus’s (Dern) place to make amends for a rocky past and takes up with bargoers like Corey (Manning) after shots at Gary’s (Junior) bar in between shifts. Journeyman as it may sound, it works to tell a somewhat disconnected tale of a less represented faction on film.
Setting everything in place comes easily for the writers, but it does begin to disengage when visualizing the theft, offering more renditions of guardianship and punishment that, while handled well, are far less niche and less interesting than what came before.
The Characters: Civetta, Levitas, and Bendana do well with creating an ensemble of broken people in risible places, often emphasizing the decay of legacy to make points about life’s cycle via main characters and tacking on some banter with side characters.
Parker had already seen his share of familial conflict before becoming a social worker, as Marcus had his own troubles, which led him to become a boxer to relieve his frustrations. The Gateway does well with these kinds of motivations, especially in Parker’s case, striving to understand his low tolerance for lackadaisical co-workers and his own bad habits of getting drunk and doing drugs with regularity. He’s able to get around his own issues whenever Ashley or any other kid is going through what he did, knowing they might turn out as he did.
The family he’s keeping tabs on is well sketched, but a bit detached from the main character at times, as The Gateway doesn’t show the full dynamic between Ashley and her parents. Ashley is discontent with her life, jaded to the real world at an all too young age after seeing the violence around her and basically having to raise herself in the absence of her supposed family. Because Dahlia is more concerned with sleeping around than taking care of her daughter, and Mike is too unstable and naïve to let go of Duke’s syndicate, it’s no wonder why Parker’s presence is a necessity.
Side characters are attended to, but Duke is lost somewhere in the mix, never given much beyond a lack of social understanding and a weird wardrobe, but Grillo does the work to make him slightly disarming. The Gateway is Parker’s show though, and he’s a great character to follow, especially due to what might be Whigham’s best performance so far.
The Drama: Even though it does eventually break away from the examination of a broken system amidst many equally broken arrangements in-country, The Gateway does provide quite a bit of good confrontations and situations that illustrate the dangers and commonalities of an unsung profession.
Various encounters, starting with the first scene in the movie, showcase the rather disheartening problems in an unspoken underbelly of society. Parker’s arrival is marked by a kid asking if his parents are going to be awake soon, none the wiser to the fact that one isn’t going to wake up at all. The job isn’t an easy one, as observed when some of the people that Parker is keeping in check are less than thrilled to see him. All of these moments add weight to the stakes of the Montrose family, who could be pulled apart in an instant, though that may be marginally better than staying together.
Dynamics between the family aren’t illustrated to the fullest, but we do come to understand the broad strokes, which are more than enough to justify Parker’s interest in them. Mike isn’t a good man or a good husband, but, in a way, he’s trying to become one, though not always through preferable means.
When Dahlia is at work and Ashley is at school, he’s scheming with Duke to bring in quick and easy cash. Robbing the cartel isn’t a great plan, so when it goes wrong, we see how it backfires not only on the criminals but also on the family, as Mike slaps Dahlia around and tries to patch the holes in the operation by making his daughter an unknowing participant in the mix.
Character moments fill in the gaps here, with Parker’s time spent in Gary’s bar, waking up after a night with a relative stranger, and discussing the past with his father and friends assisting in realizing the world as a real one with real elements. Crime drama takes center stage for the last 25 minutes, which undoes the authenticity, but doesn’t break the whole picture, which is stable until then.
The Technics: Civetta comes from a music video and commercial background, which makes some of his directorial choices make sense in context, but not as a whole. Still, The Gateway has a competent presentation with occasional flares for the better.
For what’s in large part a family drama, the movie flows at a quick pace. It stops to keep the human side to every element in a clear frame, but it never buckles under the weight of these encounters or its main plotline. Part of that comes from the editing by Suzy Elmiger (Bel Canto, Afterglow) and Trish Fuller (Cutlass, Agony), who keep each moment timed to a perfect degree to get points across but never linger on ancillary scenes, and the rest comes from the writing trio for making them believable.
Odd choices do bring down the experience, such as Civetta’s usage of pop songs during a chase scene, the robbery being filmed in a weird way with some out-of-place stylistics and humour, and the bizarre attire that Duke wears that seems right out of the mid-70s; which all belong in a different movie. The movie isn’t hollow, but these decisions make it seem like the director didn’t entirely agree.
Somewhere between a domestic drama of the recent past and crime films of the 70s lies The Gateway. It doesn’t tell an original story and falls apart two-thirds of the way in, but it’s a good rendering of drama until then, bolstered by a game cast giving terrific performances.