Gateway (2021)

Mike (Tim Creed) is a haunted man. He lies rigid in his bed, seeing Hannah (Fiona Hardy) as she silently remonstrates with him and bleeds at the other end of the room, even though she is dead. He travels and retravels – in a waking dream – the isolated back-alley where something bad happened. His best friend Joe (Kevin Barry) and other associates are worried that Mike’s distraction may get in the way of the job at hand: setting up a crop of weed in an abandoned house, so they can pay off their debt to local crimelord Cyril (Jimmy Smallhorne) before he sets his torture-happy enforcer Tex (Ryan McParland) on them. Yet in writer/director Niall Owens’ Gateway, everyone is haunted, everyone is full of grief and guilt, and everyone has ghosts – whether of the dead or even of the living – plaguing their conscience.   

Eddie (Laurence Ubong Williams) has recently lost his adoptive father (Martin Lucey) to a heart attack. Joe’s alcoholism has estranged him from his wife Ellen (George Hanover) and their little daughter Sarah (Maria de Brí). Even Cyril has recently had to put his cat down and is watching his wife slowly die of cancer. And Mike cannot let go of his murdered sister Hannah, and nor can her boyfriend Climpy (Dafhyd Flynn), who was the last person seen with her.

Amid all this loss, and in an incestuous demi-monde where everyone knows everyone and is interrelated in complicated ways – some open, some hidden – Gateway starts off as a sort of suburban crime drama, reminiscent of Ben Wheatley’s Down Terrace (2009), only with an Irish setting. Yet once Mike, Joe, Eddie, Robbie (Finbarr Stanton), Phil (Joe Lyons) and Eric (Ian de Brí) have arrived at Number 11 – an abandoned house which, as Joe observes, “should be a junkie’s paradise” but is strangely empty, with plastic sheeting laid on the floor – the film will become more akin to WW Jones and Luke Skinner’s karmic post-heist thriller The World We Knew (2020), as one by one these lost souls will be confronted by the darkest side of their psyches.

Opening with a quote from Baltasar Gracián (“Never open the door to a lesser evil, for others and greater ones invariably slink in after”) that recontextualises the marijuana these men plan to grow as both ‘gateway’ drug and route into greater debt and harder crime, Owens’ feature also derives its title from a room on the house’s upper floor which proves to be a transdimensional portal to the innermost resentments, recriminations and regrets of whoever crosses its threshold. For Gateway is preoccupied with men no less haunted than the house that they illicitly occupy, as their shame, jealousy and vindictive hostility are brought destructively to the surface. 

Gateway draws out the uncanny from the most banally naturalistic of settings. The overwhelming acoustic design of recordist Niall Creaven, composer Tong Langlois and mixer Arron Faye is an essential part of this – a terrifying soundscape of subliminal bass, industrial ambience and electronic tones that keeps the viewer on edge throughout. Meanwhile, these men’s criminality is key. For as No. 11’s infernal workings confound external events and the characters’ interior states, there is the strong suggestion that this is a limbo-like purgatory where morality is being tested. Much as Mike’s flirtation with torture and murder promises to be his ethical undoing, likewise his kindness towards young Sarah and his shift (three times over) towards mercy might just be his salvation. Even as two mysterious figures (John Ryan Howard, Rosie O’Regan) circle the bleak periphery with their whispered intimations of doom and despair, and as the house claims its deadly due, perhaps in the end not all who enter must abandon hope.

strap: Niall Owens’ suburban, increasingly supernatural crime drama confronts a group of would-be weed growers with grief and guilt

© Anton Bitel