Movie stars are good. Serious Actors are better. Best of all are That Guys.* Even if you’re a casual film viewer, you likely have a favorite That Guy. In blockbusters, they’ll show up in supporting roles, often playing the same 2-3 kinds of roles. Michael Biehn, for example, is an excellent That Guy, and he carved out a pretty good niche playing steely-eyed military types and psychopaths.
Better yet is when That Guys get a chance in the spotlight. This almost always happens in smaller films, and to my mind, that’s a good thing. Those smaller films tend to be more interesting, riskier, more fun. One of the Ur-That Guys was Bill Paxton, an actor who specialized in playing motormouths, hicks, and sleazoids.** He was always good, but when he was the lead in films like One False Move and Frailty, Paxton could be electric.
Despite political gridlock and worsening climate change, we can all be cheered by the fact that we still have a deep bench of That Guys. I’ll turn your attention to one of the most prolific — Shea Wigham. A quick glance through his filmography shows he’s died awesomely in Kong: Skull Island, pursued a deranged comedian in Joker, and dealt repeatedly with drivers who mock the laws of physics in three entries of the Fast and Furious franchise.
Wigham is a consummate That Guy, and it’s nice to see him show up in a film to do his thing for a bit. His latest film is the two-fisted crime drama The Gateway, and he takes the lead in a movie that’s somewhat wobbly but always interesting.
As far as I know, it’s fairly unusual for social workers to do bumps of cocaine on the job, brandish pistols at street-level hoods, and cart around airplane-sized bottles of booze. Regardless, Parker Jode (Wigham) does all these things. You’d think this would be the setup for a film about a rampaging scumbag such as Bad Lieutenant or Training Day. Fortunately, that’s not the case.
You see, Parker is a genuinely good guy. After his mother overdosed and his father ditched him, he grew up as a foster kid. He remembers all those moments of conflict, fear, and loneliness. The desperate hope that someone would help, and the realization that nobody was coming. That’s why he spent a few years as a professional fighter, then transitioned to social work in St. Louis.
Part of social work involves sifting through the debris of a broken home. Parker accepts that, and he’s trying his best to bring some degree of stability to the Montrose family. Mike (Zach Avery) is the father, and he’s doing time in prison for being a semiprofessional criminal. The mother is Dahlia (Olivia Munn), and she’s absorbed physical, mental, and emotional abuse from Mike, so is it any wonder she’s got a substance abuse problem and can barely care for their daughter Ashley (Taegen Burns)?
Parker wants to help them somehow. He gets Ashley to school and provides Dahlia with the tough love she needs. His actions don’t really matter when Mike is released and quickly falls back into working for local crime boss Duke (Frank Grillo). There are promises from Mike to Dahlia, that he’s going straight, and maybe he even meant those words when he said them. But when he’s involved in an armed robbery that goes bad and uses Ashley as an unwitting drug courier, their little family starts falling apart, with Parker caught in the middle.
For a chunk of its runtime, The Gateway is two movies occurring simultaneously until they collide. The first movie is a slice-of-life character study about a severely burned-out social worker and the people he’s trying to help. The second is a noir-soaked crime drama adorned with neon and shootouts. Perhaps I’m wrong, but it feels like director Michele Civetta was likely more interested in the character study yet needed aspects of the crime thriller to attract funding and lure in audiences. That’s a bummer because while the crime stuff is okay, Civetta shines when we follow Parker throughout his day. We see him dealing with an obnoxious co-worker, playing chess with his bartender buddy (GOAT That Guy Mark Boone Jr.), and dropping in on Ashley and Dahlia. I liked that procedural aspect and liked the time spent with a broken man still trying to do a little good.
Ultimately, I think the screenplay by Civetta, Alexander Felix Bendana, and Andrew Levitas is about how damaged people process their damage and move forward with it. Parker is trying to ensure nobody goes through what he did. Mike goes the opposite direction and focuses on himself, even excluding his wife and daughter. Dahlia feels like she’s somewhere in the middle, trapped in self-destructive patterns and unsure of a way out. The dialogue gets a little clunky and some of the smaller characters feel like cliches, but the characterization of the main characters is solid. That’s the most important piece.
If The Gateway had been made in the 1950s, Robert Mitchum would have played Parker. I have no idea if that concept crossed Shea Wigham’s mind, but he plays the role with some serious Mitchum energy. Perpetually exhausted and chainsmoking constantly, Wigham’s Parker feels like a guy who’s gotten kicked in the teeth nearly once too often. There’s this spark of optimism in him, not for himself, but for Ashley. He knows she’s a good kid who could go places were she not dragged into the trainwreck of her family. I’m a sucker for movies where the lead is secretly an optimist, and Wigham acquits himself nicely.
As much as I liked Wigham’s work, I think there are two performances that are better. The first is Zach Avery as Mike. The norm in crime movies is for the characters to be either Machiavellian schemers or wisecracking badasses. Like the vast majority of real criminals, Mike is neither of those things. He’s not that bright, though he thinks he is, and he keeps undermining himself with impulsive acts that make things worse. I don’t think that Mike is a sociopath. He’s just deeply selfish and more than a little dumb, and I appreciated that Avery was willing to show the enormous flaws in this man.
The second performance is Olivia Munn as Dahlia. If you drop Munn in a comedy or action movie, she can handle herself just fine. She hasn’t been given too many chances to show real vulnerability. As Dahlia, Munn is playing a woman who’s been through so much that she’s on the brink of shutting down. Watch Munn’s eyes, and for much of the film, you’ll see she has a thousand-yard stare that she unconvincingly hides from her family, Parker, and herself. If you’ve ever been around someone who’s been through trauma and is forced to pretend to be “normal” around others, you’ll know what Munn is doing. She’s a skilled actor, and I’d be interested in her digging into meatier roles.
That Guys don’t usually headline blockbusters, win Academy Awards, and become lionized when they retire. The work itself is the reward. The Gateway doesn’t reinvent cinema or provide two hours of unstoppable entertainment. It doesn’t need to. While a little unsteady, it’s a solid film anchored by a strong performance from Shea Wigham. He’s an excellent That Guy, and we’re lucky to have him.
*That Guy is a gender-neutral term. Stephen Tobolowsky is a That Guy, just like Judy Greer is a That Guy. Yes, I could refer to them as “character actors,” but that feels a touch boring.
**Paxton was also the only actor to be slain by a Terminator, eviscerated by a Predator, and annihilated by an Alien.