Aspiring social workers may want to check out The Gateway before submitting those MSW applications. If you believe Michele Civetta’s thriller, the job mostly involves finding dead bodies and getting involved with violent altercations with dangerous criminals; being an ex-boxer and wearing a gun is highly advised. The lead character is named Parker, and viewers shouldn’t be blamed if they confuse him with the tough-guy thief immortalized in crime novelist Donald E. Westlake’s long-running series.
Although the film strongly signals its serious intentions by being bookended with a Charles Dickens quote and statistics about how many children enter foster care every year, it mostly resembles the sort of B-movie thriller that was a staple of ’70s-era grindhouses. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the overall pretentiousness and lack of humor make it more of a slog than a guilty pleasure.
Set in a gritty St. Louis (convincingly doubled by an equally gritty Norfolk, Virginia, which probably should leave that info off its tourism marketing), the films centers on Parker (Shea Whigham), the sort of hard-boiled, hard-drinking antihero who really, really cares about his charges. He’s particularly concerned about single mom Dahlia (Olivia Munn), whose husband is in prison, and her precocious teenage daughter, Ashley (Taegen Burns). Parker is more of a friend of the family than city bureaucrat, even volunteering to drive Ashley to school to help Dahlia out.
You’d think there might be regulations prohibiting such behavior, but Parker, who spends much of his time getting soused at a local bar, clearly doesn’t concern himself with such things. He does manage to get fired, however, when he punches out an obnoxious co-worker for making lewd comments about Dahlia.
This makes it even more difficult to intervene when Dahlia’s newly sprung husband, Mike (Zach Avery, lacking the charm to make his evil character remotely interesting), reenters the household and resumes his criminal activities under the auspices of local kingpin Duke (Frank Grillo, wasted here). Those activities include a robbery (elaborately filmed to look like a single take, but mostly inducing viewer whiplash) that puts the family in mortal danger when Mike uses his daughter as a drug mule. Bloody, ultraviolent mayhem ensues, also involving Parker’s estranged father, a Vietnam vet and jazz musician (Bruce Dern, cursing up a storm and bringing to mind his bitter ex-soldier characters in Coming Home and Black Sunday), who conveniently keeps a shotgun handy.
You can easily tell what the cliché-ridden screenplay (written by Civetta with Alex Felix Bendaña and Andrew Levitas) is going for, especially when a battered-looking Whigham channels his inner Bogart to deliver sardonic lines like “Keeping the streets safe ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.” The contrast between Parker’s caring persona and his inability to form meaningful human connections is all too clearly telegraphed by his one-night stand with a barfly (Taryn Manning) and his friendship with his drug-dealing bartender (Mark Boone Junior, an actor so grizzled he looks like he was born on the back of a motorcycle). None of it, however, is remotely convincing, despite the best efforts of Whigham, who brings an effective, world-weary conviction to his compelling turn as the seemingly cynical protagonist who’s really a softie at heart.
Director Civetta has many television commercials and music videos to his credit, which becomes evident in the aggressive, harshly lit visuals that mainly make you want to reach for your sunglasses. Like everything else about the movie, they seem to be trying too hard.