Russom and Fort shine in ‘The Midnighters’
Written/directed by: Julian Fort
Starring: Leon Russom, Gregory Sims, John Wesley, Larry Cedar, and Charles Dierkop
“The Midnighters” – Victor (Leon Russom) is free.
After 35 years in prison, this 72-year-old – who physically and emotionally displays the effects of extensive confinement through deep etches in his face and pronounced, tired circles under his eyes – is now free.
His former “business associate”, Louie (Charles Dierkop), asks him, “Do you know what you are going to do now?”
Victor responds, “Not a clue.”
At this moment of “The Midnighters” - writer/director Julian Fort’s outstanding step into noir – my mind immediately traveled back to 1994’s “The Shawshank Redemption”, when the state grants parole to an aging prisoner named Brooks (James Whitmore). Brooks – unfortunately – could not process his new-found freedom, because the world was much too large, compared with his tiny, cement block cell that he knew for probably half a century, and I feared Victor would fall into the same tragic fate.
Victor is unsure of himself and his new surroundings.
Are his friends still alive? Is his money still in safekeeping? Will he recognize Los Angeles in the 21st century?
Even though Fort sets his film in the present, his well-crafted crime drama harkens back to gritty affairs from the 1970s, the time – actually - in which Victor was originally imprisoned. Every main character sports a shady past, and even Victor’s parole officer (Larry Cedar) appears to have worked through his share of issues as well, as Fort deliberately crafts a downcast tone. His camera follows Victor around blue-collar neighborhoods, as this ex-con attempts to process his next move for the first 45 minutes of the picture’s 1-hour 26-minute runtime.
Russom – who delivered the single best performance that I saw at the 2017 Phoenix Film Festival – offers an authentic and wholly empathetic character in Victor. A man now misplaced in time, Victor quietly fights through uncertainty. One can feel that he is panicking with internal, physiological combustion but copes by smoking a random cigarette whenever he can. Sometimes, we see Victor speaking in masculine metaphors with an old friend, Chester (John Wesley). Other times, he sits alone and deeply ponders his limited time in an unknown future or dwells on his mistake-filled past. He exists in an unhealthy state, personified – at one point – by dining on a piece of moist, heavily frosted chocolate cake contained in a plastic, supermarket box and drinking a bottle of cold beer.
He – and his diet - may be unhealthy, but he is free.
Although, his freedom consists of living on the wrong side of tracks in a weekly-rented apartment at King Solomon’s Reef. His place includes wood paneling on its thin walls, and they easily permeate the sounds of crying babies and drunks breaking bottles, day or night.
Like the film’s title, most of the picture takes place at night, and dark tones are also reflected in Victor’s clothing choices (including a loose-fitting, black sweatshirt), his general mood and the overall feeling of dim hope. The mood and pacing change however, when - out of the blue/dark - a man from his past, Danny (Gregory Sims), suddenly appears and provides a reason for some rarely-felt optimism. The problem is that Danny could take Victor to a place which could land him back in incarceration. At this point, the math says that another 35-year sentence means life in prison.
Fort’s film is split into two halves: Victor’s doubts about his brand new present and the huge step towards a potential future. Of course, this step is a criminal one, and Fort and Russom lead us down a tricky and tension-filled path in which we really root for Victor to come out the victor. Our hero’s history of luck has not been a good one, however, and his age does not appear to be his ally. Sure, experience does beget knowledge, but this is balanced by the stress that extensive prison time has also created. In one very important 90-second stretch towards the end of the second act, a bead of sweat rolls down Victor’s brow, and we sit next to him and feel the pressure too. During this precise moment, Victor does have a clue – but not absolute certainty – about this particular action, but as “The Midnighters” unfolds, we don’t have a clue how it will end for this man approaching the midnight of his life.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.