Film & TV

With Midnighters, Alston and Julius Ramsay Graduate from the Coen Brothers School of Noir

The Ramsays’ self-possessed new thriller is a blood-curdling delight.

A bone-chilling noir can be as plain and mesmerizing as the way a drop of blood diffuses in a pool of water. In the case of Midnighters, the situation is straightforward enough: We’re with an ordinary couple just after midnight on New Year’s morning. They’ve both had a few drinks. They’re having a few problems in their marriage. Then they run over a man standing in the road, and the man turns out to have their home address in his pocket.

As with, say, A Simple Plan, one questionable but understandable decision — the couple put off calling the police until their blood-alcohol level settles a bit — sets off a grim game of dominoes. Except these dominoes are more like miniature black tombstones. The personalities of the principal characters, the unsavory things they’ve done, and the ties among them produce an atmosphere of pure and delicious doom. Though the film has some touches of horror (notably a musical score with an unfortunate and insistent cheesiness), it’s noir at its core — there’s a sense of underlying sin that taints everything. If you’re in a horror film, you’re probably not morally responsible for what’s happening to you, but in a noir, you are the author of your own misery, which makes noirs more deeply unsettling and more involving.

At the center of this one is Jeff (Dylan McTee), an ex-jock who blew a ninth-inning lead as a pitcher in the College World Series and is now unemployed. His wife Lindsey (Alex Essoe) has a good job at a bank, but grows ever more impatient as he fiddles with home-improvement projects. Superstar athletes are unquestioned alphas, layabouts who let their wives pay the bills betas, and yet the same man can be both. There is little question about which Lindsey would rather see in Jeff, and this is a source of consternation for him. The clock is ticking. Meanwhile, Lindsey’s sister Hannah (Perla Haney-Jardine) is floundering as well, and has been less than forthcoming about her involvement with a shady financier. Attempting to sort all of this out, Detective Smith (Ward Horton) turns up at Lindsey and Jeff’s house. But he merely adds to the overall sense that things aren’t quite right when he asks odd questions and smiles too much.

Ideally, a story like this executes one sharp turn after another while keeping its wheels on the road of plausibility. The Ramsays have pulled off that feat with aplomb, making the most of what must have been a minimal budget and a not-great cast.

I hesitate to mention Joel and Ethan Coen, but Midnighters, which is currently playing in a few theaters and available via on-demand television, is written by one brother (Alston Ramsay) and directed by another (Julius Ramsay), and their droll winking at genre conventions even as they expertly conjure up suspense and shock suggests an appreciation of the Coens’ method. In particular, their film recalls the Coens’ unnervingly assured first effort, Blood Simple (1984). Julius Ramsay has an eye for the kind of delicately grueling detail that becomes inevitable once you decide to do a Bad Thing — say, the way a paper towel looks when it’s absorbing as much blood as it can hold. Alston Ramsay, without doing any socio-cultural posturing, nevertheless assembles his script in layers, keeping the surprises coming along with hints of raised-eyebrow commentary. Twice, men come to harm because they’re distracted by their own lasciviousness, in a tidy little rebuke to what feminists call toxic masculinity. So, too, can the Ramsays pull off a joke so subtle you might easily miss it, as when two people are chatting about a woman’s work problems — “She’s been under a lot of pressure lately” — and we cut to the same woman with a knife being held to her throat.

Ideally, a story like this executes one sharp turn after another while keeping its wheels on the road of plausibility. The Ramsays have pulled off that feat with aplomb, making the most of what must have been a minimal budget and a not-great cast. Among the four leads, only the delightfully impish Horton (he’s like a cross between James Marsden and Eddie Redmayne) makes much of an impression, whereas Blood Simple benefited greatly from the presence of pros like M. Emmet Walsh and its then-unknown lead actress, Frances McDormand. Keeping the lights low at all times (except, gloriously, at the end) seems to be a big part of Julius Ramsay’s strategy for covering up his cast’s shortcomings, and it has the side benefit of keeping his viewers helpless in dread’s shadows. In Midnighters, it’s always late — probably too late.

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