Ain’t love grand? Except, you know, when it’s not. Like those all-too-relatable days when routine settles in, when long-worn love drifts apart and partners find themselves on opposite sides of a fork in a road, when years of shared dreams turn out to have never been the same dream at all, and when, at your relationships breaking point, a blood-thirsty monster shows up at your door. Classic stuff.
Ok, maybe that last point isn’t so relatable, but in the hands of directors Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella, it certainly feels that way. The Battery filmmakers (Gardner starred and directed with Stella as DP, before co-directing Tex Montana Will Survive!) deliver another lowkey, slow-burn genre riff with After Midnight; a love story/monster movie mash-up that puts the emphasis on romance and relationship drama, using its monstrous metaphor to put an exclamation point on matters of the heart.
Gardner stars as Hank, an old-fashioned country boy who’s perfectly happy with his simple life as a bar owner in the sticks, where he lives in his family’s old home with his girlfriend Abby (Brea Grant). But Abby wants more. After ten years of the same old, same old small-town life with Hank, she’s ready to the next step, and with no sign of a wedding, a baby, or a return to the city in sight, Abby takes off unexpectedly one day, leaving Hank behind with only a cryptic note and the cat he gave her for her birthday as cold comforts.
Hank, in turn, is a mess. Falling apart at the seams without the woman he loves, his nightmare gets a lot worse when a mysterious monster starts clawing at his door every night. His friends think he’s slipping over the edge in his heartbreak, especially Abby’s brother — the local sheriff (Justin Benson), who insists the creature must be a black bear with well-intended but patronizing diatribes about scientific odds. With no-one left to turn to but his shotgun, Hank settles in front of his door with a 12-gauge, waiting to catch the creature, get his girlfriend back, or hopefully, both.
For those expecting a more familiar creature feature, adjust those expectations. This is an earnest, heartfelt drama about the cracks that settle into all relationships — even the good ones — when we become complacent with and expectant of the people we love. Presented in lyrical, non-linear sequence, the past and the present overlap in After Midnight, inviting you into the hazy honeymoon days of Hank and Abby’s romance while, at the same time, showing us what happens when it falls apart. Which means we’re always rooting for them, even as we watch those cracks in their communication drive them further and further away from each other… until there’s a monster waiting in the middle.
Gardner carries the film with a performance that’s alternately goofy and charming in the past, and wounded and remorseful in the present, but always intimate and unadorned. And he’s well-matched in Grant, who delivers an equally tender and understated performance as a woman in a mid-thirties crisis who’s taken a tally of the life she built with the man she loves and found it wanting. Some of the film’s most critical moments hinge on subtle shifts in her expression, and Grant is up to the task every time. Their chemistry is the beating heart of the film, which After Midnight wears on its sleeve in a surprisingly sentimental twist on the monster movie.
That’s not to say After Midnight‘s creepier bits don’t land when it counts. Hank blasts a baseball-sized hole in his front door early on, and Gardner and Stella make good use of that staging with a series of set-pieces built around glimpses at something through the door. There’s also mid-film midnight walk that ends with one of the best understated acts of horrific violence in recent memory (further punctuated by a particularly gnarly dialogue description later on). And, perhaps most importantly, After Midnight‘s final scenes land the ending in every way the film needs them to, delivering poignant emotional catharsis for the characters and audience alike — not to mention one of the best earned and executed jump scares of the year.
Co-produced by Spring and The Endless team Justin Benson, David Lawson, and Aaron Moorhead (Benson also co-stars), After Midnight feels right at home in their wheelhouse of emotionally-driven genre-benders. Likewise, After Midnight feels like a sibling film to Gardner’s directorial debut, the zombie apocalypse bromance The Battery, and fans of that film will likely find lots to love in this one too. In keeping with those titles, After Midnight is subtle but effective, atmospheric and tense, and so full of heart it might just hit a little closer to yours than you expect.