Set in St. Louis but shot in coastal Virginia, attempting to wrestle tough sociopolitical issues while sporting the neon hues of a stylized neo-noir, “The Gateway” lets itself get pulled in too many directions for any of them to be well-realized. Nonetheless, this crime melodrama represents an advance for commercials and music video director Michele Civetta over his first feature, the occult muddle “Agony,” with improved control over performances and pacing. The implausible but diverting Lionsgate release is launching in limited theaters, on demand and digital Sept. 3, with disc formats following a week later.
Raised in a foster home after his mother’s fatal OD and his father’s abandonment, Parker Jode (Shea Whigham) is a still-punchy former pro fighter who now tries repairing other people’s families as a state social worker. In that role, he’s developed a paternal interest in young Ashley (Taegen Burns), even driving her to school when mother Dahlia (Olivia Munn) shows up drunk from a one-night stand.
But that already-fragile domesticity takes a turn for the worse with the prison release of Mike (Zach Avery), who promptly moves back in with his wife and daughter — whether they like it or not. His prior misdeeds working for local crime boss Duke (Frank Grillo) had already nearly cost Dahlia custody of Ashley. Still, he quickly goes back to that life, while also renewing his status as a liar, wife-beater, and pathologically jealous spouse.
Armed robbery of a rival operation on Duke’s behalf turns into a bloodbath, putting police back on obvious suspect Frank’s tail. But it’s using his child as an unwitting courier for stolen heroin bricks is what ultimately sets our protagonists on the run from violent goons. This is ill-timed, as protective Parker inconveniently no longer enjoys governmental authority, having been fired for hitting an obnoxious coworker. The emergency forces reconciliation with his own ne’er-do-well dad, cleaned-up jazz musician Marcus (Bruce Dern).
“The Gateway” moves quickly enough to hold attention, if not to cover up its ill-matched individual elements, let alone meld them into a coherent vision. Characters seem sprung from one genre cliché-book or another, yet periodically open their mouths to glibly hold forth on American imperialism or systemic corruption. The earnest, sometimes maudlin address of abuse issues clashes with the film’s fussy aesthetics, whether expressed in Parker’s rockabilly quiff, candy-colored lighting gambits, or a shootout in a bordello that looks like a series of gallery installations.
Civetta is the ex-husband of Asia Argento, whom he saddled with an excess burden of histrionics in the Italy-shot Gothic thriller “Agony.” The frequent disconnect between style and content here is reminiscent of her own directorial effort “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things,” in which brutal events were presented in affectedly prettified fashion. As they hang out in garishly ornate dive bars and impossibly hued alleys, “The Gateway” often seems more interested in investing its (male, at least) figures with Tarantino-esque hipster cool than taking seriously the woes of crime, poverty and substance abuse amidst which they live.
If “Agony” felt both inert and hysterical, this sophomore feature at least has more overall narrative propulsion, albeit minus much knack for building suspense. The impact of imprecisely staged violent action is further undercut by overuse of retro-sounding funk, R&B and soul tracks apt for a good-time caper film. These selections reinforce that the movie sometimes seems to exist in an artificially exoticized South, more Memphis-of-the-mind noir than “gateway to the West” St. Louis, with its lamentably high murder statistics.
There’s also a howler of a fadeout, when a film that hitherto had scant room for African American characters (a single scene for Keith David aside) unleashes an incongruous onslaught of churchy pulpit and gospel-choir exuberance, as if it had forefronted a “Black Lives Matter” message all along. You can’t say Civetta and his two co-writers lack opinions about the state of the U.S.A. But in what ultimately plays as a contrived potboiler, those ideas come across as cluttered and half-baked — presumably due to changes wrought since Alex Felix Bendana’s original screenplay (then called “Where Angels Die”) landed on the Black List of highly-rated unproduced scripts nearly a decade ago.
Despite so many individual missteps making for a bumpy whole, “The Gateway” manages to go down pretty painlessly, thanks in large part to a cast as colorful as the rather flashy visual packaging. No one here gets a role comprised of much more than a few external characteristics (and the women sometimes less), but the actors do their best to contribute hard-living vibes. Probably the best turn is by Avery, who like everyone else here has to contend with some clumsy, on-the-nose dialogue. Yet he makes potentially cardboard villain Mike into a frighteningly credible sociopath, always just a hair’s breadth away from exploding into violence.