There are three characters in it Stroke of luckand none of them have names: a wealthy tech CEO played by Jesse Plemons (The power of the dog), his wife, played by Lily Collins (Emily in Paris) and the man who robs her, played by Jason Segel (The Muppets). They shouldn’t meet – at the beginning of the film, the thief is alone in the couple’s empty mansion. It’s only when the couple changes plans and finds him in their home that the film’s tense 90-minute negotiation begins. In the one-act play that follows, the real hostage isn’t a person, it’s the idea of meritocracy, as Stroke of luck is slowly becoming a class-mad thriller about Mark Zuckerberg’s being held captive to the world.
The latest film from director Charlie McDowell (the ones i love), streaming now on Netflix, is a throwback to Hitchcock, an exercise in understated, clean filmmaking and the tension that comes from putting three people and a gun in a room together. Each character appears on screen and reveals a little bit about themselves, although they try not to. The more time they spend together, the more they reveal, even when they’re feeling down. They can’t help but be who they are.
Filmed with long shots and long takes, Stroke of luck feels like a play, although it doesn’t give up the joys of cinema. His single set – the villa and the surrounding orange grove – is lovingly rendered with symmetrical compositions and gold-tinged colors. The film’s score is awash with reedy woodwinds, taking listeners through peaks and troughs as the power dynamics shift between the trio’s three performances just loud enough to take them well out of the “subtle” realm, but not so much that they become downright cartoonish.
Plemons is a delight as “the CEO,” a man who for much of the film’s runtime can’t believe he’s being robbed. He suspects that he has somehow bullied the intruder, whose full motivation is never fully revealed – that his livelihood has somehow been damaged by the successes of the CEO’s companies, or that he is angry at the CEO’s stature and feels it undeserved. This belief manifests itself as smug condescension towards the guy holding him hostage: in a scene where the couple’s unexpected guest demands money, the CEO laughs and says he should charge twice as much.
A lot of Stroke of luck consists of the male leads going back and forth about what they want and whether the other deserves to have their desires met. In this sense, the CEO becomes an avatar for the new billionaire tech elite, who believe they have earned their status and in fact face considerable adversity while the whole world eagerly awaits someone like him to fall. Confronted with the pettiness of his prey, the thief finds solace in the belief that his understanding of humans remains superior no matter how desperate his situation becomes. As a thief, Segel is a particular highlight: skittish and gaunt, with a slightly mean streak rarely seen in his acting work. And in limbo is the wife: the film’s silent pivot, whose sympathies shift and waver according to who is actually listening to her and who isn’t.
Stroke of luckThe screenplay by Justin Lader and Andrew Kevin Walker (based on a story by Lader, Walker, Segel and McDowell) isn’t subtle enough to make the film a success. His commentary is ponderous, his characters are too neatly sketched. But the script allows all three characters to become satisfactorily chaotic, as each of them crosses small boundaries that surprise the others, in a series of transgressions that pile up until the three characters at the end of the film are radically different from the three at the beginning . That’s the dangerous thing about so-called meritocracies: They often build on lies that are rewarded with money. When you hold those lies accountable, the real person underneath looks a lot less extraordinary than before.
Stroke of luck is now available to stream on Netflix.