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The Case of the Poorly Hidden Bunker: Vaughn Stein’s Inheritance

Calling Simon Pegg for Plot CPR….

By Thomas Puhr.

The opening montage of Vaughn Stein’s Inheritance (2020) exposes a fundamental flaw: in a sequence that juxtaposes DA Lauren Monroe (Lily Collins) sparring in court, Congressman William Monroe (Chace Crawford) prepping for an upcoming election, and their father, Archer (Patrick Warburton, squandered in a rare dramatic role), having a fatal heart attack, what’s meant to be propulsive instead feels convoluted. It’s a rough start to a film which, despite an intriguing premise, collapses under a bevy of plot holes and extraneous characters.

Soon after her father’s untimely death, Lauren is shocked to discover he had been keeping a man named Morgan Warner (Simon Pegg) prisoner in a secret underground bunker. This burden is her titular inheritance (along with a million dollars, which perhaps makes the whole “your father is a sadistic criminal” revelation easier to swallow). You may wonder how Archer concealed this double-life from his entire family for some 30-odd years, especially since the bunker is visible from their kitchen window, but the answer is simple: he put a tarp over the hatch.

In any case, once Lauren ventures downstairs and begins interrogating Morgan, Inheritance does manage to generate some actual suspense. Morgan was imprisoned, so he claims, after refusing to help Archer cover up a murder, and now Lauren must make a difficult decision: release him and destroy her family’s reputation, or keep him in chains and continue her father’s terrible legacy. The pair’s tense conversations supply the film’s strongest scenes, though writer Matthew Kennedy’s dialogue can be painfully broad (my personal favorite is Collins’ straight-faced delivery of “You’re chained up in a bunker, and I want to know why!”).

Pegg, clearly relishing the opportunity to play such a slippery character, steals the show. Hidden behind a mess of hair and a husky American accent, he is nearly unrecognizable as Morgan. It’s a carefully modulated performance, by turns intimidating and pathetic. Like Lauren, we don’t trust this man but can’t help sympathizing with him (to occupy his mind, he memorizes a key lime pie recipe from an old magazine and recites it like a prayer). Though he occasionally hams things up, Pegg’s energy comes as a relief; unlike the other actors, he actually seems to be enjoying himself.

It’s outside the bunker that the film really loses its way. Characters like Archer’s mistress, Sofia Fiore (Christina DeRosa), are introduced and elicit our interest, only to disappear from the narrative. Lauren’s husband (Marque Richardson) and daughter (Mariyah Francis) get a lot of screen time in the first act but are absent for such long stretches that I nearly forgot they existed. A subplot about Sofia’s role in a trial Lauren is prosecuting gets dropped entirely, as if Kennedy couldn’t figure out how to connect the story thread back to the central mystery and just gave up. Such loose ends aren’t purposeful ambiguity: they’re evidence of sloppy writing.

I’m typically not a stickler when it comes to plot holes, but Inheritance stretches viewers’ suspension of disbelief to a razor-thin level. Case in point: an extended sequence in which Morgan somehow convinces Lauren to take him outside so he can help her find the remains of Archer’s supposed victim. Not only does she answer her cell phone and chat with her husband while holding Morgan at gunpoint, but she also, in a moment so ludicrous it borders on the surreal, drives to the secluded murder site as Morgan gives directions from the backseat. For a cutthroat DA, this is some pretty trusting behavior. It should come as no surprise when William suggests their family’s political clout secured her high-ranking position.

Still, these shortcomings would be admissible if the film offered more guilty-pleasure thrills; however, it’s not until the last fifteen minutes or so that all involved seem to surrender to the plot’s inherent ridiculousness and let it rip. But it’s too little too late. A last-minute twist, while genuinely shocking, is undercut by one of the laziest storytelling tricks in the book: the villain (I won’t reveal their identity, for those who bother to seek this one out) pulls the old “Allow me to explain my elaborate scheme for five minutes rather than just kill you when I have the chance” ploy.

I suspect a reasonably engaging film is buried somewhere in this bloated mess. If Stein and company had trimmed the fat and focused on Lauren and Morgan’s verbal game of cat and mouse in the bunker, Inheritance could have made for a decent 90-minute chamber piece. Instead, the only silver lining in sight is the hope that Pegg will continue to pursue dramatic roles. His performance belongs in a much better movie, or at least a more entertaining one.

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.

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