A stilted, cringe-inducing script dooms a promising if relatively well-worn premise in a caper that telegraphs its twists from a mile away.
What would you do if you struck a pedestrian with your car in the middle of the night on a lonely stretch of highway outside the range of cell phone service? Midnighters isn’t particularly concerned with this question, because when its principal characters do just that, they proceed to make one implausible decision after another. Directed by Julius Ramsay and written by his brother Alston Ramsay (both making their feature-length debuts in those capacities), the film clearly strives for a Coenesque neo-noir angle, where two bumbling laypeople get in over their heads. Along the way, there are doses of black humor, references to classic films, vague connections to organized crime, a loquacious and enigmatic psychopath and a suitcase full of money. But ultimately a stilted, cringe-inducing script dooms a promising if relatively well-worn premise in a caper that telegraphs its twists from a mile away.
Married couple Lindsey (Alex Essoe) and Jeff (Dylan McTee) are squabbling on the drive home from a New Year’s Eve work party (Lindsey’s the breadwinner at the moment and Jeff resents that), when Jeff gets the hot idea to spice things up by reaching between Lindsey’s legs. He takes his eyes off the road just long enough to strike a burly man who’s inexplicably walking down the middle of it. Panicking, the couple decides to load the barely-breathing pedestrian into their car, where he appears to die in the backseat. Noting that they’ve both been drinking that night, they take the body back to their home so they can sober up for a few hours, but the man wakes up on the garage floor and attacks Lindsey’s younger sister, Hannah (Perla Haney-Jardine), who proceeds to wrestle away her assailant’s gun and shoot him dead. The situation only escalates from there as it becomes clear the man had been sent to attack them, and bad-girl Hannah is somehow caught up in a broader conspiracy.
On paper, that sounds like a decent setup for a crime thriller, but unfortunately, it’s on paper that Midnighters stumbles the most. Alston Ramsay used to be a Pentagon speechwriter, and his debut screenplay is stuffed full of exposition-heavy dialogue delivered by characters who don’t feel the least bit lived-in. From the vague New Year’s resolution between Lindsey and Jeff to “make it happen this year” to Jeff’s ludicrous reminiscing while the couple scrubs blood from the garage floor (“You know what this reminds me of? That shithole apartment we had after college.”), almost nothing about Jeff and Lindsey feels like believable married-couple interaction. Their current financial predicament seems equally contrived—Jeff complains that having to settle for a recent vacation at a crummy Radisson without a breakfast buffet more or less equates to poverty—as does the instant attempts at double-crossing over the appearance of an envelope containing $50,000.
Eventually, a handsome, dimple-chinned man (Ward Horton) purporting to be a detective appears on their doorstep, and he’s unnervingly charming until he begins to seem increasingly sinister. He’s full of gems like “Riddle me this, Lindsey,” and “Bottom of the ninth, Jeff,” while Horton chews the scenery so hard that it becomes evident the other actors manage to make the best of a dud script that contains urgent cries of “This isn’t what we planned!” and “Everything I did, I did for us!” and “We’ll work this out or die trying!” Julius Ramsay basks much of the film in atmospheric natural light and offers clever edits and compelling camerawork, but the motivations of his brother’s poorly-sketched characters never become clear or plausible enough for Midnighters to feel like anything but a derivative mess.