MIDNIGHTERS Film Review: New Year’s Neo Noir

This tiny, Hitchcockian thriller proves how far a really tightly constructed script can take you.

There's not a lot of flair to the direction of Midnighters – the 90-minute thriller debut from Julius Ramsay (The Walking Dead) and Alston Ramsay (a/k/a The Ramsay Brothers) - and that's for the best. Julius' background in TV - as both an editor and director for the hit zombie series - explains how this Hitchcockian piece of pulp turned out so proficiently workmanlike. Every shot feels like it's working in service to the script this new filmic duo co-wrote together, which blends a "wrong place/wrong time" set up with the murky morality of neo noirs such as Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan ('98). It’s a story-first approach that yields one of the brisker, twistier low budget chillers in recent memory, fit for a dime store paperback you'd buy at a boardwalk pharmacy. 

Lindsey (Alex Essoe) and Jeff (Dylan McTee) aren't doing so well these days. Lindsey's job at the bank is barely paying their mortgage, while Jeff's too preoccupied to finish the renovations they can't afford to their fixer-upper home, let alone be bothered to find a paying gig. As the clock strikes midnight and New Year's Eve is in full swing, the pretty wife finds her bum of a husband out back, smoking a cigarette. "This is gonna be our year," he tells her, but he said the same thing last year, too. We get a sense this is a marriage on the brink of collapse, and maybe this calendar period contains the last ditch in which they try to find what they used to love about each other.

Well, it would've, had Jeff not hit that guy in the middle of the road while driving back from the NYE party. Too scared to call the cops, they pile the tattooed stranger into the backseat and speed home, hoping to sober up and make a more clear-headed decision from there. Unfortunately, the guy stops breathing, only to wake up and attack Lindsey's deadbeat sister Hannah (Perla Haney-Jardine) in the garage; an assault that ends with the girl grabbing the battered man's gun and shooting him in the head. Now, there's no saving him. But why is a small note with Lindsey and Jeff’s address in the murdered man's wallet? Who the hell was he coming to find? Did Lindsey give out a shady loan at the bank? Or is the former flame Hannah's hiding away at their house a little more dangerous than she lets on? 

To reveal any more about Midnighters’ plot would do the viewer a total disservice, but suffice to say: once a good-looking detective (Ward Horton) starts snooping around the couple's wooded New England home, things begin to escalate rather quickly. Anyone who's ever seen a few of Hitchcock's more stripped-down works (or hell, there's even a fair bit of Psycho ['60] in here) will probably be able to see a few of the storytelling surprises coming, but that doesn't take away from one of cinema's greatest pleasures: a solid tale, told pretty damn well. Cinematographer Alexander Alexandrov (The Good Neighbor [‘16]) keeps the nighttime scenes draped in dark shadows, while the daytime still owns a rather cold, sinister vibe, aided by composer Chris Westlake's ominous score. This is a handsome piece of pulp, through and through.

None of this would work if we didn't buy into these characters' backstabbing one another in order to save themselves (and possibly profit - once a big bag of money becomes involved). Essoe (Starry Eyes [‘14]) is the real story here, making Lindsey's every reaction to the increasingly awful scenario appear calculated yet organic. Maybe it's right that McTee (of MTV's sadly departed Sweet/Vicious) seems like he's constantly playing catch up with her, as their arcs go in totally opposite directions, revealing just how large a chasm there is between the two, both ethically and intellectually. That unbridgeable canyon becomes one of Midnighters' grandest treats. Though the screenplay is clearly plotted with razor sharp ruthlessness, the ultimate fates of its players come naturally; an inevitable byproduct of their already crumbling relationship. That's a pretty tough blend to pull off, but the Ramsays do so with surprising ease, marking them as a new set of talents to watch from here on out. 

Midnighters is out today in theaters and on VOD from IFC Midnight.