On blind cops, missing license plates, and neo-noir traditions badly replicated in Midnighters
Midnighters IFC Midnight
Director: Julius Ramsay
Screenplay: Alston Ramsay
Starring: Alex Essoe, Dylan McTee, Perla Haney-Jardine, Ward Horton, Joseph Lee Anderson and Andrew Rothenberg
Not rated / 1 hour, 34 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
It's like what Jim Nantz always says about a married couple wrapping up the body of the person they just accidentally ran over and then shot in their garage, frantically cleaning up all the blood, hiding the weapon, destroying the ancillary evidence and then figuring out what to do with a bag full of money: It's a tradition unlike any other.
Julius Ramsay's Midnighters is built on scenes and scenarios that have a long and glorious history, and does most of them so ineptly that we wish we were watching a different movie from the same strain. Alas, no matter how many times we close our eyes and open them again, we're still stuck with this one.
A wife and husband in financial trouble. An accident on a dark country road. A murder cover-up that uncovers a financial windfall, cold-hard cash, the solution to all their problems. Cops sniffing around about an overnight disappearance. A mystery man who comes around looking to collect. A wild-card sibling who somehow connects it all. Most of that description matches, among other predecessors, Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan, its significant influence on Midnighters evoked by deliberate musical cues from composer Chris Westlake. But otherwise, the similarities end at the plot summary.
There's such a delicacy, a precision, to making something like this work. Moody tensions hang on so many minor details; consequences pivot on the slightest of actions, the subtlest of choices. You're gliding carefully along volatile planes of credibility, constantly pushing the boundaries of absurdity, flirting with the necessity for violence. You laugh to stop from shrieking. Characters are perpetually on the verge of getting caught or killed, or watching everything go up in smoke. The failure of Midnighters is a failure to modulate those nuances, an inability to land on the right side of the threshold between the preposterously stupid and the sublimely preposterous. Scene after scene, Ramsay fails to pull off moments we've seen work like gangbusters time and time again. A shot choice will be a step or two too obvious; a detail in an elaborate lie will be one or two shades too conspicuous (without anyone, least of all the screenplay, noticing); the construction of a key dramatic scene will be a few pieces short, collapsing the entire thing.
There's one scene whose tension is so well-composed it feels as if it was directed by a much more talented impostor. It's in the middle of the film, after the accident and the dead body and the cleanup. The husband, Jeff (Dylan McTee, who's like if you combined Dylan O'Brien and Pat Healy but removed the subtlety of both) - an out-of-work, flamed-out ballplayer - is out of the house making a run for that money. Along for the ride is his sister-in-law, Hannah (Perla Haney-Jardine). She has a mysterious past, of course. Which leaves our star, Lindsey (Alex Essoe), alone at the house. And when the wife in a "we just covered up a dead body in the garage" type of situation is alone at the house, you know what happens next: Someone knocks on the door.
That someone is Evil Eddie Redmayne, though he claims his name is "Smith." He tells Lindsey he is an officer of the law and he just wants to ask her a few questions. Really, though, what he wants is ... a cup of coffee. Yknow, inside. We know where the scene is going, of course, but Ramsay patiently allows that unspoken knowledge to just sit there, hiding under cordial pretenses. His questions are fundamentally innocuous, yet each is laced with an implicit threat. Questions like, "Is your husband home?"
The scene - which takes place mostly in the kitchen, an empty countertop standing between the nervous Lindsey and the unnervingly placid Smith (Ward Horton) - is staged with such intent, such mood-altering menace. The way Ramsay holds his two actors in the frame - gradually narrowing their distance, visually articulating the balance of power between them and slowly squeezing it - is a level of craft the rest of the movie doesn't possess. Whatever scenes in the film do work tend to involve these two characters. Smith likes to toss around astrological hokum, and insists that he and Lindsey - as a Scorpio/Capricorn pairing - connect on a fundamental level. That may not explain it, but the psychological tension between the two is so much more potent than any of the film's other dynamics that we might as well go with it.
The performers themselves certainly don't hurt. Essoe - whose sterling performance in Starry Eyes a few years ago was a small-scale breakout - is commandingly quiet, and seems uniquely capable of getting the most out of a shakily written role. She does more with certain line readings than most others would given the same words. One moment struck me in particular, from that same kitchen scene, in which her voice slightly hesitates and trails off at the very end of a sentence we all know is a lie - a fragile surrender to the reality of the moment.
Horton has the most fun role, and he more than pulls his weight. When that door opens, he immediately registers as menacing. Professional, friendly, clean-cut menace. Part of the effect is simply the circumstances of the plot - when a stranger shows up at the door right after you've killed a guy and gotten a line on some money, you're going to be instantly suspicious no matter what - but Horton carries himself in a way that makes his sinister qualities clear even without announcing them. His body language as the scene in the kitchen plays out is subliminally threatening; his piercing eye contact and calm tone-of-voice do the rest.
But it seems the more moving pieces the story has, and the more Ramsay has to coordinate, the more Midnighters falters. Consider the sequence of events that leads to the dead body in the garage. Lindsey and Jeff are on their way home. He's driving. He gets himself distracted and runs a guy over. They do not want the cops involved; the breathalyzer won't go well. They load the man into their car and - after some equivocating over whether or not he's done for, and whether they should just drop him off at a hospital - they decide to head home, with the body in the backseat, and sober up for a couple hours before taking action. All movies like this are based on normal people making terrible decisions, so at this point we're still in good shape.
But then: they notice the front license plate is gone. Must be back at the site of the accident. Jeff heads out to retrieve it. When he gets near, he sees that the cops are already on the scene, so he can't get any closer (at least not yet) or look for the plate. The film then cuts back to the house, with the sister, Hannah - in her introductory scene - being dropped off out front and heading inside. She goes to the garage, she's attacked by the miraculously alive man, and after a struggle, she shoots him dead with his own gun.
First of all, the way the scene plays out between Hannah and the mystery man suggests the filmmakers simply didn't shoot enough coverage. There aren't enough shots - or they're not put together clearly enough - to make the scene visually cohesive. But more important is what we discover after the shots have been fired: Jeff's home, apparently! He's up in the bathroom flossing or something. Last we saw him, he was in the car near the crash site. Suddenly he's in domestic mode as if nothing has happened. The issue is not that time passed with an edit, but that the edit clumsily skipped over time deeply relevant to the urgent situation at hand - and in a way that mangles any sense of narrative or temporal clarity. It's as if the filmmakers, knowing Hannah needed to be the one to kill the guy in the garage, couldn't come up with any coherent way to put that eventuality into motion, so they decided to have Jeff and Lindsey temporarily ignore the fact that their missing license plate ties them directly to a crime scene and that there's a bloody, probably dead man sitting in their garage. They divorce themselves from the narrative just long enough to get the required kill out of the way.
Even worse is the inevitable scene the next morning when the cops show up - license plate in hand - and ask to take a look around. There's always a quietly frenzied tension to this kind of scene; we hope the cops don't look over here, or don't notice this tiny flaw, or don't ask that question. But the way the scene plays out in Midnighters, the cops inexplicably don't notice anything at all. These two dopes are surrounded by one conspicuous detail after another, and somehow don't register a thing. And the stuff they don't notice, or shrug off, is the stuff the movie specifically points out - dirty fingernails, suffocating smell of bleach and ammonia, a pool of blood collecting under the rolled-up tarp that's shaped like a person. Where's Mary Harron when you need her? You could play it for comedy - two bumbling cops who don't notice anything strange about an obvious crime scene - without changing a word or a shot. But the film plays it straight.
There's nothing wrong with any of the ingredients in Midnighters. But they need to be finessed carefully and intelligently, and Ramsay isn't the guy to do it. In a sense, the characters have met their match - the film is as bad at staging the execution of the crime as Jeff and Lindsey are at the execution of the crime itself.