by Andrew Roberts
Midnight in the Switchgrass is a pretty straightforward crime thriller through and through. Supposedly based on a true story, it’s a film that follows the mystery thriller formula to a tee and yet somehow often fumbles it in the execution. With a compelling cast at the helm (though very much a Bruce Willis performance in Direct-to-Video mode) and a decently intriguing mystery at hand, Midnight in the Switchgrass should be a pretty engaging thriller. Instead, it’s messy, often dull procedural that feels pretty well made on a technical side but lacking in its storytelling, feeling way too generic and devoid of tension to ever rise above its issues.
In 2004, Midnight in the Switchgrass follows Byron Crawford (Emile Hirsch), a Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent haunted by these seemingly similar, though regarded as unconnected, murders of young women in Florida go against orders to try and bring closure to these deaths. Meanwhile, FBI agents Rebecca Lombardi (Megan Fox) and Karl Helter (Bruce Willis) are conducting sting operations to catch sex traffickers, save young girls from prostitution, and incriminate those who solicit them. Unbeknownst to both sides, they track the same man, Peter Hillborough (Lukas Haas), a trucker who uses his travels to murder young women. The film is supposedly based on Florida’s Truck Stop Killer, though it is far more inspired by Robert Ben Rhoades’ crimes than a direct adaptation of his real-world horrors.
Midnight in the Switchgrass is the debut directorial effort from producer Randall Emmett. A veteran of the industry, Emmett clearly knows how to construct a scene on a technical level and has understands the basics of a crime mystery thriller. It’s not poorly shot; however, it feels typical and quickly shot. It results in a film that looks okay but very standard, often using the most basic of mid shots and close-ups. The film is dark, both tonally and visually, and Emmett, along with cinematographers Duane Manwiller and Colby Parker Jr., uses the grimy, low light aesthetic to create this generally uneasy and repulsive feeling throughout. That being said, it all feels like an emulation, a copy of what gritty crime thrillers look like, and this becomes much of this film’s problem, with the script featuring much of the same issues. Writer Alan Horsnail, also a debut produced screenplay, crafts this script with an understanding of what beats make up a crime thriller but executes it in such a way that that’s dull. The film’s dreary nature is inbuilt with the genre, but its trope heavy nature is much to its detriment; Horsnail knows the crime thriller genre, displayed by how he uses trope after trope, but fails to ever engage or ramp up the tension, making the film feel drawn out and prolonged.
That all being said, this film isn’t a failure. It’s dull, and the mystery isn’t necessarily well constructed, but it’s never wrong. The dialogue writing is primarily solid, bar the occasional line or two that doesn’t really roll of the actors’ tongues well. And most of the performances work. Hirsch can sometimes put a little too much on for the tone of the film, but he mostly holds it together. Fox’s Lombardi is poorly written, and therefore her performance suffers. Still, she is a watchable presence, nailing the hard-edge of Lombardi pretty well. Willis is lazing through his little scenes, but it doesn’t help that Karl is a rather dull character, to begin with. He will occasionally crack out some gravitas for a moment of importance. Still, he’s generally just there, delivering the lines as on the page.
The stand outperformance of the film is Lukas Haas. He is pretty unnerving despite the script never really getting him to play as discomforting as he can be. The most significant tension this film musters comes from Haas’ performance and how he can snap from a timid, quiet man into an absolute monster. It’s effective when correctly played, and Haas plays it really well.
Midnight in the Switchgrass is mostly underwhelming, but it’s never a complete disaster. It feels way too simple, clear cut and trope based to break free of stereotypical genre work, but it’s never overdone either. It sits in a middle ground that is watchable enough but never interesting. It’s utterly inoffensive in its existence, watchable, though way too typical and messy crime film to be anything more.