Film Review: THE MIDNIGHTERS (directed by Julian Fort)

by Jason Rohrer on April 6, 2017

in Film

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 OLD-SCHOOL OFFBEAT CRIME DRAMAS & YOU

In the 1970s, “low-budget movie” was the umbrella term with which TV Guide covered products as disparate as John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. Gene Shalit and Rex Reed used a dozen adjectives between them for the entire New Hollywood decade. Those were the fat years. In the new millennium, with ten times as many movies budgeted in the million-dollars-and-under category, a critic has to be able to parse twee mumblecore noirs and indie raspberry frappacinos (1 part troubled 80s star, 1 part Culkin) and whatever else shows up on the festival circuit after not getting into Tribeca or Slamdance.

I miss “low-budget.” But what your festival entry still has to be, to see even the tip of the marketplace, is extraordinarily good. Some kind of extraordinary: well-shot or well-written or well-cast is a feat in a small movie; all of them is better. And good’s far from the only thing a little movie has to be. It’s more important to be well-timed. Even though you probably finished physical production three years ago, your movie has to resonate somehow with judges who woke up this morning and watched three other movies first.

Opening Friday night at the Phoenix Film Festival, The Midnighters has very good timing. The story of an old man reintroduced to society after 35 years in prison to discover that his buried loot was dug up and stolen during the Reagan years, it could as well be about a kid graduating from college today: Opportunity’s scarce, and nothing they told you to expect is even remotely true. Like maturing, aging has its regrets and its consolations, but getting laid can always turn into a confusing pain in the ass, and hustling a buck will test the young and old alike. This movie’s lens and its protagonist share a fugue state with most of a shell-shocked nation right now. Writer/director Julian Fort finds a grace in portraying a realistic American economy where crushing systems charge us to suffer their indignities, and more immediate killers are always watching for their chance at our throats. The only way out is a combination of chops and luck.

The Midnighters is a handsome slow-burn thriller about the trouble that comes to a 73 year old safecracker who wasn’t around to raise his son to be a better person than he was. Leon Russom stars; a veteran of stage, soap operas and Coen Brothers pictures, Russom is possessed of a coiled-spring body and a face of immense resting gravity. He is an instantly credible blue-collar con, wary and hardened and still with a headful of teeth. Fort’s good timing includes securing this actor for a leading role at a profound period of life, when decisions count more and more, when options are getting limited, when experience knows but age, maybe, can’t anymore. Though it has other virtues, this picture would be worth watching if only for the chance to see Russom blink his way from barely-controlled panic to comprehension and action.

The first scene braces Russom against Larry Cedar, who makes the most convincing parole officer since M. Emmett Walsh in Straight Time; like many in the movie, this moment lets two master craftsmen play at each other through disarmingly straightforward dialogue. Russom also gets to banter with John Wesley and Charles Dierkopf, who have over two hundred film and television credits between them, as well as relative rookies like Costa Ronin and Eve Mauro and Gregory Sims. All are excellent, but it’s the old-timers who shine here, in a frame that gives them room and respect.

A meditation on age and usefulness that takes the trouble to include details like a lonely meal of chocolate cake and beer, The Midnighters does not feel slow (the fine editing is by Jim Ewing) or overwritten (Fort’s script, as shot, is if anything a little thin) or undershot (Paul McIlvaine, who likes negative space, delivers nicely as director of photography). Fort sucker-punches his audience with heist picture tropes that work because he couches his genre fake-outs in the same tonal ambiguity his protagonist sees everywhere in a society three decades ahead of him. What feels willful or incongruous in a lot of little pictures here feels like the texture of a scary world.

Frequently funny, often sad, The Midnighters is never tedious; it is too full of gallows suspense. It doesn’t make the indie mistakes of pandering or going for the cheap shot or trying to answer every dramatic question its writer could think up. Its bad guys are vicious, and its good guys are due no good fortune, and the circumstances are increasingly ominous. The movie feels very 2017 to me, only better directed.

photos courtesy Julian Fort

The Midnighters
86 minutes | USA | 2017
screening at the 2017 Phoenix Film Festival April 7 – 9, 2017
plays Dances with Films at the Chinese Theatre, Hollywood; Friday, June 9, at 7:15
for more info, visit Midnighters the Movie or The Midnighters on Facebook

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Chuck Orlando April 9, 2017 at 1:09 pm

This review definitely piqued my interest. Can’t wait to see it.

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Stuart McLean June 3, 2017 at 3:07 pm

Come see the Los Angeles premiere of The Midnighters on Friday, June 9th at 7:15pm at Mann’s Chinese Theatres in Hollywood (get tickets here). It’s an official selection of the 20th Annual Dances With Films Festival, but there’s only one screening.

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Dr Phil Siegel July 3, 2017 at 5:32 am

Well done. Too many movies are designed for Shakespearean groundlings.

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