You’ve seen Midnight in the Switchgrass before—or, certainly, it will feel that way. In the new thriller, available on demand and in theaters that are especially starved for content, Megan Fox and the peevish husk of Bruce Willis play FBI agents hunting a murderer who’s preying on young women, mostly runaways and prostitutes. The pair are joined in the desperate search by Emile Hirsch’s local cop, who’s determined to find justice for these girls whom no one else seems to care about. Austin’s own Lukas Haas plays the killer, driven by a twisted lust he hides behind his guise as a loving family man. All of them are guided through the motions according to the same checklist for procedural sleaze you’ve seen in countless cops-and-killers movies over the past thirty years. Even if you’ve barely skimmed an episode of Law and Order, you know how this will all play out.
Midnight in the Switchgrass claims to be based on a true crime, although that’s debatable. The film was ostensibly inspired by Houston’s Robert Benjamin Rhoades, a.k.a. “The Truck Stop Killer,” who was suspected of torturing, raping, and killing more than fifty women while working as a long-haul trucker throughout the seventies and eighties. But besides borrowing the basic premise of a trucker who’s also a sex-crazed murderer, the movie jettisons nearly everything about Rhoades’s story. It relocates the setting to Pensacola, Florida, then places the whole thing in 2004, for reasons that are never really clear—other than, perhaps, the filmmakers’ nostalgia for the last year when a movie this generic might have still been able to move units at Blockbuster Video.
That Midnight in the Switchgrass is dismally formulaic isn’t a surprise, since its director is Randall Emmett, who also wouldn’t consider this a hindrance. Although the film marks Emmett’s official directorial debut, he’s produced a hundred movies just like it, a sprawling oeuvre of low-budget, lower-stakes filler dominated by what one industry wag dubbed “geezer teasers” in a recent Vulture profile of Emmett. They’re films that spend millions on hiring, let’s say, seasoned leading men like Willis to contribute mere minutes of actual screen time, while cutting corners on absolutely everything else. Those familiar faces are then used to sell the movie to streaming services, overseas markets, and undiscerning viewers.
Willis has cranked out dozens of these kinds of movies in the past decade alone, many of them for Emmett himself. Still, Midnight in the Switchgrass may be the most overtly checked-out he’s ever been on screen. In his brief, scattered appearances, most of which find him chastising Fox’s loose cannon over her recklessness, Willis delivers his lines like a bored dad conscripted into helping his kid rehearse for the school play. His scenes almost all take place in the cushy seats of sedans and diner booths; Willis looks vaguely irritated whenever he’s forced to stand. Midway through the movie, he just gets up and leaves, presumably picking up his check just out of frame.
Of course, most viewers won’t be drawn to Midnight in the Switchgrass because of their interest in Robert Ben Rhoades’s story, or even in watching Bruce Willis kill time between M. Night Shyamalan movies. The film has already attracted some unexpected attention because it’s where Fox met her current boyfriend, Colson Baker, a.k.a rapper Machine Gun Kelly. Fans of the couple may be drawn to watch out of romantic curiosity, eager to see their chemistry develop in between Fox slapping around Baker’s seedy pimp. There’s some schadenfreude-style attraction as well, after the couple very publicly ditched the premiere, with Baker appearing to trash the film online.
Fox is also enjoying something of a career reset of late, sparked by a reconsideration of the way she was unfairly pigeonholed in thankless sex-kitten roles early on. Her part here is pretty thankless, too—a lazy mélange of “tough cop” and “traumatized woman” cliches that also finds plenty of room for her to be objectified. But Fox commits to it anyway, even while acting against Willis’s blank void. At best, Midnight in the Switchgrass functions as a demo reel that proves Fox is ready to take on more deserving scripts.
But the real reason to check out Midnight in the Switchgrass, if any, is Haas, whose performance as the nervy, pervy killer falls short of a revelation, but still brings an unexpected left turn to his four decades of acting. Haas has done menacing before— playing a po-faced drug kingpin in Brick, and a sociopathic young thug in the little-seen revenge thriller While She Was Out. Still, he’s rarely tapped into his inner creep like this, or put his puckish, still oddly boyish appearance to such unsettling use.
Haas’s Peter is a sick, repulsive man, driven to kidnap, torture, and kill women out of a sexual compulsion that, like so many other things here, is never really explored. Yet Peter also dotes on his wife and, especially, his young daughter, in scenes that draw on Haas’s natural, soft-spoken sweetness. We’re introduced to Peter early on as he abducts a teenage girl and chains her up in his shed. Watching as he tries to keep his family life and his depravity separate, his redneck purr turning alternately genteel and unhinged, provides the only genuine tension in a movie where we already know who did it, so you’re just waiting for the cops to catch up.
You’ll have to wait a while. Working around Willis’s limited screen time, Emmett pads the film with ponderous narration about the apparent biblical significance of Pensacola, pointless side trips to Hirsch’s character’s home (so his perpetually crying wife can berate him), and several flashbacks, often to scenes that happened just minutes before. There are countless shots of cheap motel signs buzzing moodily in the night, and close-ups of that titular switchgrass swaying languorously in the breeze, all while the soundtrack of melancholy country songs and melodramatic strings tries desperately to fill the dead air. Midnight in the Switchgrass puts a dull, pretentious gloss on a predictable formula, and doubtless you’ve seen even that done better. But at the very least, it adds an interesting wrinkle to Haas’s fascinating career, along with a few zeroes to Willis’s savings account.