Synopsis – An FBI agent and Florida State officer team up to investigate a string of unsolved murder cases.
My Take – Despite their often mixed results, serial killer stories continue to be in demand across all media, especially the ones that have homicide detectives leading the narrative or claim to be based on true crimes.
Hence, a certain hype was attached to this latest addition to the list that is said to be inspired by real life American serial killer called The Truck Stop Killer aka Robert Benjamin Rhoades, who was convicted for three murders, but was suspected of torturing, raping, and killing more than fifty women while working as a long-haul trucker between 1975 and 1990.
While the opening sequence, which sees the discovery of a new victim, sets the tone of a promising dramatic tale, its lackluster script, questionable editing and poorly conceived dialogue, quickly makes sure that the film ends up being yet another generic mess.
Something which shouldn’t have come as a surprise as the film marks the directorial debut of Randall Emmett, a producer who while credited with some exceptional films like The Irishman (2019) and Lone Survivor (2013), has come to be known mainly for his sprawling oeuvre of terrible low-budget, lower-stakes fillers dubbed geezer teasers in a recent lengthy Vulture profile for their tendency to bait streaming services, overseas markets, and unsuspecting audiences with the presence of aging stars like Sylvester Stallone, Robert De Niro among others, who actually appear for only minutes in the films.
And like those films, this one too cuts corners with everything. Besides borrowing the basic premise of a trucker who’s also a sex-crazed murderer, the film jettisons nearly everything about Rhoades’s real story. It relocates the setting and then places the whole thing in 2004, for reasons that are never really clear.
Also for a film dealing with sexual predators and serial killers, it is as sleepy as it is sordid. It also doesn’t help that for his first outing as a director Randall Emmett has little to work with writer Alan Horsnail‘s script by which is heavily inspired by The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Red Dragon (2002). Add all this incompetence together and you have a thriller that fails to deliver thrills or atmosphere or basically anything else.
Set in Florida, the story follows Byron Crawford (Emile Hirsch), a detective for the Florida Department of Criminal Investigation, who is convinced that a serial killer is operating on the outskirts of Pensacola for years, and is still looking to collect the required proof to open an investigation even though his colleagues aren’t interested because the victims are sex workers.
However, he does catch a break when he meets Rebecca Lombardi (Megan Fox) and Karl Helter (Bruce Willis), two FBI agent, who have been running a not so successful prostitution sting out of roadside motels, and were on sight of the shady Pensacola motel from where killer’s possibly next victim, Tracey Lee (Caitlin Carmichael), disappeared. Despite his changing M.O., Lombard and Crawford are convinced that they are looking for the same man and decide to perform an unsanctioned joint operation to entrap the killer before he kills Tracey or gets another victim.
Add to that proclamations of faith from the killer, and reflections on the absence of God’s love in the world, we have a recipe for something equivalent like the first season of HBO’s True Detective. And yet, through what seems to be sheer incompetence especially on the part of director Randall Emmett, this is one of the most astonishingly disappointing films I’ve seen this year.
Sure, the reveal of Peter (Lukas Haas) as the killer early on is not necessarily a problem, but the film takes the trouble to show that Peter is a loving father and husband, in such a way as to hammer the point again and again that the serial killer seemed like such a nice, normal person but is reality was a monster. But, the script lacks the context or nuance to create proper juxtaposition with Peter establishing early on as creepy, the film has nowhere to go but into depravity, which needed to be handled with deft and precision.
As I mentioned above, there’s never a sense of urgency in the film despite the fact that Peter could strike at any time. The pacing is fitful and ungainly, with scene transitions that are often abrupt and jarring.
It’s a long time before Crawford and Lombardo actually team up, and there’s no sense of connection or shared dedication to the case once they do. The monologues delivered don’t give us much new information about the characters and just seem to slow things down. But what’s most baffling about the film are the editing decisions.
Throughout there are quick cuts of flashbacks to previous scenes as tension is rising and a sequence is coming to a head. This is a pretty normal technique for a mystery film that doesn’t trust its audience to remember things from an hour ago, but here the flashbacks don’t even serve that purpose.
Performance wise, Megan Fox, who is enjoying something of a career reemergence of late, is stuck with routine tough cop on a vengeance character that also finds plenty of room for her to be objectified. But Fox commits to it anyway and makes her root able. Emile Hirsh has sadly never been a household name, and like most films he chooses to star in, here is once again giving the most. Even though the scenes depicting his home life are unintentionally hilarious. Lucas Haas is refreshingly low-key and believable as the villain.
Bruce Willis has been on downward spiral for almost a decade now, mainly thanks to his eighteen joint efforts with Emmett himself, yet I have never seen him so overtly checked-out. In his brief appearance, Willis delivers his lines like he is obviously bored and vaguely irritated whenever he’s forced to stand.
Sistine Stallone is wasted in a small role, while Colson Baker aka Machine Gun Kelly is shockingly good in his two scenes, both with his real life partner Fox. On the whole, ‘Midnight in the Switchgrass’ is a lackluster thriller that fails to deliver thrills or atmosphere or basically anything else.
Directed – Randall Emmett
Rated – R
Run Time – 99 minutes