Midnight in the Switchgrass isn’t a serious movie, although the newspaper line might have you believe otherwise. Randall Emmett’s poorly planned and anguished directorial debut follows a multi-agency (FBI and local police) investigation into the kidnapping and brutal murders of young women in a wet coastal town of Pensacola, Fla. . The film, which bills itself as a mystery crime thriller, comes close to meeting even the lowest expectations; he neither takes his characters seriously nor engages in his superficial attempt at topicality.
Written by Alan Horsnail, Midnight in the Switchgrass could easily – for the reasons mentioned above – be considered a failure, a work to which little attention should be paid. But stereotypical businesses like these, which lack quality writing or poignant emotion, reveal American culture’s reliance on lazy tropes about women, sexual violence, and law enforcement. Examining these films provides an opportunity to reflect on the disturbing symbols that reinforce each other in gender narratives. Even though the point of these movies is to revel in the luscious, sweaty atmosphere and action – rather than the substance – of shows like HBO’s. Easttown mare provide a lesson in how to thoughtfully tackle real-life issues without sacrificing the rewards of the genre.
Midnight in the Switchgrass
The bottom line
A dull thriller riddled with tired tropes.
Midnight in the SwitchgrassThe problems start with intention: he doesn’t really know what kind of movie he wants to be. The uneven direction, oscillating between brooding, melancholy sleuthing procedure, and studying melodramatic characters, makes you feel like you’re watching two different, equally unsatisfying movies. While the visuals are passable, it’s hard to appreciate them while trying to make sense of the plot and keep up with competing storylines.
Aerial shots of Pensacola, followed by a voiceover by Officer Byron Crawford (Emile Hirsch), kick off. “Lions are born knowing they are predators, antelopes understand they are prey, humans are the only creatures on Earth with a choice,” he says. The suggestion, about the role of individual responsibility in determining fate, seems out of place in a film ostensibly concerned with the livelihoods of the city’s most vulnerable population.
Women go missing almost every day in this small town in West Florida. The victims have similar profiles: young, white and generally sex workers. At the start of the film, a man stumbles upon a randomly abandoned, lifeless body in a random field. Police arrive and discover that it is one of the recently missing women. In the next scene, the killer’s next target, Tracey Lee (Caitlin Carmichael), trips out of a motel room and crosses a gas station, where a truck driver tries to approach her. She fights before another trucker, Peter (Lukas Haas), saves her life. It is clear from the dramatic music, his shifty eyes, and the slow, menacing movement of the camera that Peter cannot be trusted either.
Sitting in a car, watching this drunken girl stagger through the streets, is FBI Agent Karl Helter (Bruce Willis). Despite his closeness, and vow to save women just like Tracey, he does not intervene. Instead, he radio calls his partner Rebecca Lombardo (Megan Fox), who is waiting for a criminal in the same motel where the young woman left. The person who ends up breaking into his dark, underlit room is Calvin (Colson Baker, aka Machine Gun Kelly), a low-level pimp. He’s not the man she expected, and their scene, filled with half-hearted attempts to physically fight and verbally skewer, doesn’t accomplish much in terms of plot or character development. It’s also not particularly fun to watch.
With such a star-propelled line-up, one might reasonably expect a juicy acting game, but some of the performances have a phone-like quality – like the actors don’t want to be there. (Surprisingly, one of the most consistent and invested tricks comes from Machine Gun Kelley.)
In another part of town, Detective Crawford sits in the office of Lt. Gilbright (Donovan Carter), who informs him that he is – for reasons never specified – out of the Missing Young Women case. Their rambling and unconvincing exchange leaves Crawford dejected. As he walks out he drops that baseline: “You know nobody’s ever stood up for these girls, and I just can’t reconcile that anymore.”
Midnight in the Switchgrass does not respect the victims or survivors who motivate its main characters. They are foils for agents and detectives, a shortcut to prove their undeserved courage and give meaning to their lives. The film is sprinkled with so-called lofty lines like Crawford’s, sentiments that promote a particular type of politics or moral virtue instead of illustrating or developing the characters’ particular humanity.
The few attempts to flesh out personalities are so superficial that they are not worth it. When Agent Lombardo meets Tracey’s sister, Heather (Sistine Salone), the two have a conversation that you might think is sincere, or would answer critical questions about Heather and Tracey’s relationship or Lombardo’s motivations. Instead, it’s superficial, managing to not reveal anything about either character.
It’s a shame that Lombardo, a determined and brash FBI agent who has been stalking this killer for a long time, doesn’t have enough history. Indeed, Midnight in the Switchgrass makes more effort to complement his male characters: Crawford struggles to balance his commitments to his wife and child with his obsession with the affair; Helter spends his few moments onscreen talking about his potential divorce and weighing the toll that Lombardo’s recklessness has taken on his life. Although he spent a significant portion of the film with Lombardo, none of these men bother to ask questions about his life – perhaps the closest to the realism of the film.
Helter ultimately decides to leave the investigation, leaving Lombardo to team up with Crawford for one final stint undercover to catch the killer. At this point, the film lets go of all the pretenses and turns into a full-fledged action thriller – a welcome development that injects higher stakes and much-needed tension into the narrative. Sadly, it’s too little too late, and the film – surprise, surprise – ends on an unsatisfactory and forgettable note.