After Midnight is an exercise in indie intentionality, seeking to upend genre convention but mustering only smug banality.
Labels are always reductive and usually insulting. They also have the potential to be illustrative, as is the case when I say that the new horror flick After Midnight is perhaps the most hipster film I’ve ever seen. An affinity for beards, craft beer, tattoos, and antebellum architecture does not mean a person lacks individuality or creativity, but this film captures the true essence of an Urban Dictionary entry with such precision that it suggests the possibility of a stealth satire. No filmmaker could possess such little self-awareness, right? Jeremy Gardner pulls triple-duty here, co-directing, writing and starring as Hank, a hard-drinking, bearded, tattoo-sporting bar owner living in the backwoods sticks of New Orleans in a big, plantation-style fixer-upper. His girlfriend of 13 years, wine-connoisseur Abby (Brea Grant), left him one month ago for reasons unclear. Since her departure, Hank is visited each night by some sort of monster that comes scratching at this door, howling at the moon. Is this monster real? Or is it a metaphor? Or is it both real and metaphor?
Gardner and co-director Joe Stella have actually tried their hand at DIY horror once before, with 2015’s Tex Montana Will Survive — although that effort certainly skewed more comedic — and the filmmaking itself proves sturdy. They show an assured hand, whether it be tracking their protagonist and a friend through the brush of the backwoods, brightly colored shirts highlighted against a sea of beige, to a clever sequence set in the recesses of night where the monster is illuminated only in the flashes of shotgun blasts. The editing is also on-point, as they favor abrupt sounds accompanying scene changes that serve as their own spin on shock cuts — perhaps not original, but at least effective here. But when After Midnight commences a 20-minute unbroken shot near the film’s end, its true purpose is revealed as our troubled lovers finally lay bare their relationship issues. There’s nothing fancy going on compositionally, just two individuals sitting on a porch, drinking, trying to come to terms with love lost. It is emotionally raw, angling for heartbreaking, but also manipulative and infuriating, because you know exactly what Gardner and Stella are doing here: upending genre conventions, and doing it in the most banal and obvious ways possible. There is a smugness to the proceedings that irritates, the clearly talented filmmakers devoting their impressive skills to an endeavor that is the definition of what “indie” filmmaking has become today — detachment posing as earnestness. And this is what makes it impossible to tell if these types of films are satires, because the greatest trick a hipster ever pulled was couching sincerity in irony. I am not the least bit surprised that filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead — two guys who basically invented this type of film with 2014’s Spring and 2017’s The Endless — have a producing credit here, or that Benson himself pops up in a supporting role. Just wake my bearded ass up from my craft beer coma whenever these dudes finally decide to be genuine.
Published as part of February 2020’s Before We Vanish.