A still from The Gateway.

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When you close your eyes and imagine a social worker, who do you see? Maybe someone in neat attire and a burned-out, wearily optimistic smile. Maybe you see Social Services, the stuffy bureaucrat played by Tilda Swinton in Moonrise Kingdom. Maybe you see one of your friends who chose a tough vocation with few rewards or frills. No matter what, your idea of the occupation is certainly nothing like Parker, the protagonist of the dramatic thriller The Gateway. He is closer to a noir hero than a typical social worker, and director Michele Civetta uses him to add suspense in a story that is often tragic. It’s an interesting gambit, even though it stretches our suspense of belief a few times too many.

Longtime character actor Shea Whigham plays Parker, a St. Louis social worker who looks and acts like he belongs in the wrong decade. He has a thousand yard stare and talks to his clients like a hard-boiled private investigator. Along with his co-screenwriters, Civetta uses one case in particular to uncover what motivates Parker. The case involves Dahlia (Olivia Munn), a casino dealer who struggles with addiction and tries to maintain a normal family life for her twelve year old daughter, Ashley (Taegen Burns). This precarious situation falls into utter disarray when Dahlia’s husband, Mike (Zach Avery), is released from prison. He immediately returns to dealing drugs, and when he involves Ashley in one of his deals—unbeknownst to her—Parker has no choice but to take matters into his own hands.

Parker is such an unusual character he has to explain his own personality quirks. At one point, he pulls out a gun and points it at a couple thieves, noting how bizarre this development must look. On top of that, he drinks heavily and is prone to flashes of impulsive violence. He would make more sense as a typical conflicted cop character, and if the screenplay swapped occupations, nothing about The Gateway would unfold that much differently. But Parker’s motivation comes from his past: He state-raised, and feels obligated to make sure other children don’t share his fate. 

Since Parker’s backstory isn’t all that complex, Civetta uses Whigam’s grizzled performance to suggest the depth of his commitment. This is one of the actor’s first leading roles, and he almost achieves the tough-guy credibility you can usually only find in performances from Lee Marvin and Charles Branson. Cameo performances from other veteran character actors like Bruce Dern and Keith David only deepen that connection.

While the characters and actors can be persuasive, the hard-boiled story tests our patience. It is probably common for violence to coexist uneasily with family drama, except the quasi-realism of Dahlia and Ashley’s struggle is incongruous with the shoot-outs, chases, and heists that drive the plot forward. Like Parker, The Gateway suffers from an identity crisis the filmmakers cannot solve. Civetta shoots confidently, draining the action of color until St. Louis looks like a husk of a major American city. It is revealing that the best scenes involve Parker when he is not on the case. The dive bar where he unwinds has enough personality and lowlife patrons that it might merit its own movie, and there are touching scenes where he revisits the foster home where he grew up—the film suggests he never really left. 

The Gateway is an experiment in genre filmmaking. It wants to show “how things really are,” and uses depressingly familiar scene types to tell that story. This approach can be provocative: There are countless examples of films about a cop or someone similar who cares too deeply about one particular case or family. The 2002 thriller Narc comes immediately to mind, since the hard-boiled detectives in that film speak to criminals and addicts like they are all part of the same fractured community. Parker has that same rapport with Ashley, Dahlia, and the criminals he sees on the streets. The trouble is that the filmmakers do not share Parker’s comfort, so they try to make us care through one violent conflict after another until we reach an unearned, maudlin conclusion. The Gateway could be a tough drama or a serviceable genre film, so trouble boils over when it attempts to be both.

The Gateway opens in select theaters and on VOD platforms on Sept. 3.