Treading, as it does, in neo-noir territory and credited to sibling writer-director duo The Ramsay Brothers, “Midnighters” is likely to invite unfavorable comparisons with the Coen Brothers' cinematic debut “Blood Simple.” Like “Blood Simple” (as well as Danny Boyle's directorial debut “Shallow Grave” and Sam Raimi's “A Simple Plan”) “Midnighters” follows as the consequences of bad decisions and greed spiral out of control.
In this case, driving home from the company New Year's Eve party, the less-than-happily married Lindsey (Alex Essoe) and Jeff Pitman (Dylan McTee) run down a stranger walking on the road out in the middle of the New England woods. Lack of cell phone service and the realization that they might face breathalyzer tests at a hospital or police station topple the first domino as the couple decides to take the victim to their home until their BAC falls a bit.
Discovering their address on a scrap of paper in the stranger's wallet is a twist worthy of Hitchcock and, by itself, might have provided sufficient suspense for the proceedings. Screenwriter Alston Ramsay (former speechwriter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General David Petraeus), however, overly concerned with keeping audiences guessing, loads on the twists and turns.
Lindsay's mooching younger sister Hannah (Perla Haney-Jardine), who has been staying at the house, returns from her own New Year's celebration. Beat cops arrive, having found the Pitmans' license plate at the site, not far from an abandoned car. But when "Detective Smith" (Ward Horton) shows up at the door, grinning like a maniac from an episode of Criminal Minds, it becomes clear that the plot has careened into slasher film territory.
Nothing wrong with that, except that Lindsey and Jeff's motivation also shifts abruptly from protecting their already-shaky family unit to simple greed and vengeance.For characters that have been introduced as an honest working-class couple, the facile embrace of betrayal and violence feels contrived. Faring even worse, Hannah never coalesces into a character, remaining a mere plot device to connect all the players.
With no one left to care about, the film contents itself with hide-and-seek in the unfinished house, with occasional bursts of gruesome violence (including a more prolonged take on “Blood Simple”'s nail-in-the-hand).
Even the locale remains undeveloped and unexplained. Why New England?
The Texas heat and desolation informed the characters and action of Blood Simple, just as the snow-covered expanses of rural Minnesota provided a suitably desolate backdrop for the morality play that unfolds in “A Simple Plan.” “Midnighters”' few exterior scenes feature dimly-lighted woods and country two-lanes, but it could just as well be the Ozarks as this nebulous "New England."
With neither characters nor location to anchor the proceedings, Director Julius Ramsay's game attempts to develop suspense are ultimately undermined by a script that substitutes plot contortion for character.