There’s a moral quandary at the center of any “hit and run” thriller: do you A) report the accident to the police and risk manslaughter charges or do you B) try to bury (often literally) the evidence? In real life, the answer is A. If you’re in a horror/thriller, however, B is inevitably the more popular option.
It’s not always easy to wring new, interesting angles out of this well-worn concept, but IFC’s Midnighters makes the mistake of trying to pack far more into a standard thriller than it needs. The film begins with promise: Lindsey (Alex Essoe) and Jeff (Dylan McTee) are a married, but struggling couple attending a New Year’s party…separately. When they reconnect after the midnight ball drop, a tense drive home becomes a nightmare when Jeff hits a man in the middle of the road.
Without much discussion, the pair decide to throw the body in the trunk and head home, which is both isolated and partially under construction. Initially the feuding couple seem to have a handle on their situation, but things go from bad to worse the next morning when Lindsey‘s troubled younger sister Hannah (Perla Haney-Jardine) gets involved and Detective Smith (Ward Horton) shows up on their doorstep, asking questions.
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The single greatest challenge watching Midnighters is the pervasive sense that you always know what is about to happen next. First time feature director Julius Ramsay manages to keep the film moving at a brisk clip and wring tension out of the proceedings, but he’s let down by his brother Alston Ramsay’s screenplay, which tries too hard to introduce twists (often at the expense of character development). There’s a tension in the script about what kind of film Midnighters is: it works best as a character-oriented crime thriller and is less effective when it veers into film noir or puzzle film tropes.
This issue is compounded by the obvious fact that the production is financially limited to a single location. The vast majority of the film is set at Lindsey and Jeff‘s house and director Julius struggles to make the setting feel claustrophobic. If anything, the under-construction house feels non-descript, bland even. The blue/grey colour palette works best when it is offset with stark lighting, such as in the garage (where most of the violence takes place). The visual aesthetic of the majority of the rest of the film, however, is flat and dull. This may be an intentional visual cue to reflect the characters’ exhaustion (the events of the film take place over the course of a single prolonged day) but it also washes the film out.
Thankfully the four principal actors are more than up to the task to carry the load. Essoe (so, so good in the criminally underseen Starry Eyes) is a compelling lead. She’s particularly adept at conveying an uneasy sense of mistrust of both Jeff and Detective Smith‘s motives. Like many memorable horror heroines, she moves effortlessly back and forth between victim and fighter, which lends the violent scenes a good dose of realism and gravity. As Jeff, McTee is firmly within his wheelhouse, playing another derivation of the hunky jerk he perfected on MTV late, great Sweet/Vicious (RIP). The pair effortlessly (and often silently) invoke the problems of their marriage in their current predicament, even when Alston’s script loses the thread in favour of introducing new plot twists.
Those twists come mostly at the expense of developing Hannah and Smith who, without divulging spoilers, have secret agendas and Machiavellian plots of their own. This keeps Haney-Jardine at arm’s length for the duration of the film: Hannah is less of a character than a plot device. Horton, on the other hand, is deliciously unhinged and Smith, while never in danger of being understated, is a force to be reckoned with. For lovers of gore, their presence means a touch of enjoyably gritty torture porn and a few additional bodies to stack up in the garage.
Ultimately Midnighters begins with a promising Blood Simple or A Simple Plan-like premise that morphs into a more complex, twisty plot, but loses sight of its characters.
2 / 4 eberts
Midnighters arrives on VOD Friday, March 2