The most important thing to know about Midnighters – indeed, the only important thing to know about it – is that it is made for only one purpose, and that is to celebrate the cleverness of its makers. The problem with this is that Midnighters is, at best, mildly clever – at brief and infrequent intervals. There’s something a little bit tragicomic about all this effort – making a feature film, even the lowest-budget film, takes a lot of hard work from a lot of people – going into making something that so thoroughly undermines its central, nay, only reason for existing. My duty here is clear: to ensure that this tragedy is minimized, and that a further tragedy – anyone spending their hard-earned money or finite and fleeting time seeing Midnighters – is, as much as possible, averted.
Midnighters has a classic neo-noir premise, or maybe just a classic noir premise. A young married couple (Alex Essoe and Dylan McTee) are hard up for money and optimism, and they suddenly find themselves plunged into crisis/opportunity. There’s the slow revelation of backstory, past failures/conflict, and the introduction of mysterious new characters. Soon there is violence, reversals of fortune, and a good old-fashioned bag of cash. If I avoid spoilers, it is out of honorable deference for the time-honored conventions of film criticism, not because I’d be spoiling anything surprising, interesting, or, yes, particularly clever.
If Midnighters was a real movie, by real filmmakers and storytellers, that wanted to embrace something really bold and challenging and reach for something iconic, it had every opportunity. Instead, Midnighters can’t be accused of lacking the courage of its convictions, though such an accusation is tempting. None of the interesting elements of Midnighters’ premise or plot actually represent convictions on the part of its creators; instead they are merely conveniences, cogs in one of those transparent clocks whose point is to make you ogle for a moment at the intricacy of its machinery.
Formally speaking, everything in Midnighters is either very blue or very yellow, and little is shot in a way that exploits the big screen. It looks exactly like an episode of a middling “prestige” TV show. Given that this film is the feature debut of longtime TV director Julius Ramsey, that’s only slightly surprising, but still disappointing. None of the dialogue has any subtexts – regardless of the stress or stakes of any circumstances. Characters always say some mix of exactly what they’re thinking, exactly what is convenient for them to say, plot-wise, or something that reads like first-draft text which was probably comment-bubbled with “actually write something clever/interesting/witty later” and never corrected. Given that the script was written by longtime DC speechwriter Alston Ramsay, that’s also only slightly surprising.
What is surprising is just how empty and half-assed Midnighters turns out to be. It feels like a script written all in one go, with no apparent thought as to how it makes any sense. It introduces elements that have real potential, and furthermore the filmmakers clearly know the potential, because in many cases the characters themselves say the things that the audience is supposed intuit themselves. A truly clever movie – even a movie successfully designed to prove its own cleverness – would’ve subverted its audience’s expectations even once. Instead, Midnighters goes out of its way to back away from anything truly challenging, to even undermine its own few genuinely interesting ideas. Midnighters, then, is an unclever person’s idea of a clever movie, or someone’s attempt to prove they’re clever only to unclever people. But given its transparency, its banality, and its failure to do one interesting thing, I doubt it will succeed even at that sad and slender goal.