By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Alex Essoe, Dylan McTee and Ward Horton
Directed by Julius Ramsay
Written by Alston Ramsay
“The mind cannot support moral chaos for long,” the novelist John Dos Passos once stated. “Men are under as strong a compulsion to invent an ethical setting for their behavior as spiders are to weave themselves webs.” Of course, “ethical settings” can be seen as webs themselves, spun from strands of justification, compromise and self-deception.
And, like a spider confidently traversing its own gossamer maze, intimately aware of which filaments offer support and which are designed for entrapment, a human being out on his or her carefully constructed and idiosyncratic web can feel a sense of power—invincibility, even. What happens, though, when a bigger, deadlier spider stealthily weaves a web around your own, subsuming that carefully invented ethical setting into ever-more-brutal manifestations of moral chaos?
That is the question the taut, highly effective thriller MIDNIGHTERS forces us to ponder, as we accompany Lindsey and Jeff Pittman—portrayed with a convincing mix of pathos and fierceness by Alex Essoe (STARRY EYES, TALES OF HALLOWEEN) and Dylan McTee—on a terrifying midnight-to-midnight odyssey. Over those hours, a series of fateful, horrific encounters crash headlong into their own increasingly complicated marriage, full of flickering love and festering resentments ripe for exploitation.
Though they depart a New Year’s Eve party together, it is clear the Pittmans are skating along the edge of estrangement. Life has not played out the way either hoped—she’s tired of working a banking job she hates to serve as breadwinner for a man whose ship seems no closer to coming in, and he’s unmoored and lost in the aftermath of a failed athletic career. Renovations on their fixer-upper home are crawling along and…well, no money, mo’ problems may not be the traditional couplet, but it’s the tune they’re reluctantly dancing to.
As the couple’s car trundles down a dark and deserted road through a wooded landscape, Jeff makes a play to bridge the divide with sex. Lindsey demurs, and as he tries to push past her resistance, he takes his eye off the windshield just long enough to smash into a man apparently walking smack dab in the middle of the road. Bad luck—or so it seems.
After a frantic, amateur attempt to save the man’s life, Jeff insists on taking the wrecked body home, promising to call the authorities once they’ve sobered up enough to pass a breathalyzer and get their stories straight. Jeff rifles through the victim’s wallet and finds…a card with his own address, and the situation is further complicated by Lindsay’s younger ne’er-do-well sister Hannah (Perla Haney-Jardine), who is on the run from trouble of her own.
At this point, the audience knows this would probably be a good time to drop a dime and get the authorities involved. After all, MIDNIGHTERS begins with a flash-forward to Lindsey tied to a chair, whimpering through the duct tape over her mouth. Alas, possessing no such foreknowledge, the characters are soon lying to cops, backstabbing each other, breaking laws left and right, playing a vicious game of cat-and-mouse with a formidable bit of evil incarnate (enacted in delightfully deranged, legitimately scary manner by Ward Horton), and going to extremely dark places that plumb the waters lying between A SIMPLE PLAN and HOSTEL. Suffice it to say the abyss, by the final third of MIDNIGHTERS, is also staring back into all the players.
It would be a disservice to the film and the experience to describe any further details. Rest assured, however, that screenwriter Alston Ramsay—a former speechwriter and advisor to both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations—and his director brother Julius, best known for his work on THE WALKING DEAD and TV’s SCREAM and here making his feature debut, prove extraordinarily adept at not only creeping dread but also explosive terror and character-building.
MIDNIGHTERS is a film full of emotional resonance, thought-provoking moral conundrums and pulse-priming action sequences, beautifully rendered and full of top-tier performances. It would be difficult to ask for much else from a lean 94-minute thriller, and after such an auspicious beginning, expectations will be high for whatever the Ramsay brothers’ next project may be.