The serial-killer thriller is a genre that, by now, has used up all its natural resources. It feels like there’s nothing left to discover in it — which is why last year’s “The Little Things,” for all its star power and ostensible ambition, seemed to be poking around under rocks we’d all looked under before. Even so, it’s been a while since we’ve had a serial-killer thriller that’s as flagrant a piece of old-school grindhouse sleaze as “Midnight in the Switchgrass.”
It’s the sort of movie where Megan Fox, as an FBI agent, somehow winds up captured by the killer and tied up with a chain around her neck, so that he can choke her, beat her, and, at one point, nuzzle her. “You sure are something special,” he says in his redneck pervert drawl; it’s clear that the filmmakers, in their way, agree. (When the killer shoots Fox up with heroin and caresses her as she nods out, on the soundtrack we hear…a romantic serial-killer ballad!) Yet It’s like a fast-food meal that makes you think, “Okay, that wasn’t good for me, but I got what I paid for.” A film like this one is a junk-franchise burger: tasty, processed, and basically fake.
More from Variety
It opens (of course) with news reports of a missing girl, then gives us a scene (of course) in which a corpse in fishnet stockings is discovered in the Florida switchgrass. It turns out that there’s been a wave of half a dozen unsolved murders in the Pensacola area; all the victims are young women (most of them prostitutes). But while Florida State Officer Byron Crawford, played with an understated sharpness by Emile Hirsch, has been trying to connect the crimes, his bosses now want him off the case. Why? No reason, really, except that it’s a cliché of the genre.
There are two other crime fighters on hand: a pair of federal agents, played by Fox and Bruce Willis, who are involved in a sting operation to catch the same killer. Over the last few years, Willis has appeared in a number of low-budget films produced by this movie’s director, Randall Emmett, and taking on those paycheck gigs he has sometimes brought his A game, but not this time. In fact, I’ve rarely seen Willis so disconnected to a role. There’s phoning it in, and then there’s what Willis does here — barely bothering to pick up the phone. Fox, on the other hand, takes a role that awkwardly combines elements of power cop and scream queen and brings a conviction to every moment. And Hirsch nails the role of a smart but small-time Florida lawman, even if the police work here comes down to connecting about three dots.
The best reason to see “Midnight in the Switchgrass” is the performance of Lukas Haas as the killer. His name is Peter Hillborough, and he’s a truck driver with a family, including a young daughter, Bethany (Olive Elise Abercrombie), whom he dotes on. That’s meant to be creepy, and is, but what makes it work is the way Haas compartmentalizes this monster, and in some ways doesn’t. His love for his daughter is walled off from the horrible crimes he commits against young women. Yet there’s a glimmer of overlap — it’s there in his obsessiveness. Haas has worked steadily in the 36 years since he was the little boy in “Witness” (he played Michael Collins in “First Man”), but the roles have often been small-scale, and he pops here more than he has in a while. His look is vivid. Tall, with choppy hair, he’s like an elf with the body of a lumberjack. We see how Peter is kind, at first, to the girls he abducts — like the one he “rescues” from a driver harassing her at a truck stop. But Haas also shows us the place where this killer’s lust meets his rage.
Forensics, offbeat clues emerging from the darkness, the killer’s homicidal cosmology — the elements that lend serial-killer dramas their intrigue are mostly missing from this one. Emmett goes right back to basics: women tied up in a shed. In this case, the shed is next to Peter’s home, so we can’t help but wonder how it’s supposed to work if one of them starts screaming. “Midnight in the Switchgrass” is the sort of movie in which the killer’s daughter comes up and says, “Hey, daddy! Cutting up some wood before dinner?” as he closes the door to the shed just in time. It’s less “The Silence of the Lambs” than “The Silence of Anything Approaching Common Sense.” But that, in some trashy way, is all part of the “fun.”
Best of Variety