Murder will out: "Midnight in the Switchgrass"

A string of killings prompts a manhunt.

The discovery of a young woman’s dead body under a highway overpass in Pensacola, Florida, proves to be part of a pattern. A string of recent killings along the interstate bear all the hallmarks of a serial killer at work. Leading the investigation is Byron Crawford (Emile Hirsch), a state cop who crosses paths with federal agents Rebecca Lombardo (Megan Fox) and Karl Helter (Bruce Willis). They’re in the area working on another case involving a sex trafficker who’s been targeting underage girls.

It’s a compelling set-up for good police procedural, and Midnight in the Switchgrass owes something to its spiritual forebears, such as The Silence of the Lambs (1991). But it feels rushed and all-too-familiar, the kind of movie where the investigators pursue a promising angle only to end up chasing shadows and where late revelations change the rules of the game.

If it had a more captivating villain (Lukas Haas, playing against type), that might’ve given it a little more life. As it is, it plays out as a more standard entry in the genre than its early aspirations suggest, but it shows promise for first-time director Randall Emmett (producer of The Irishman). The story is loosely based on the real-life case of Robert Ben Rhoades, who was known as the Truck Stop Killer.

Haas’ character is inscrutable. If we knew something about his motivations, that might help us reconcile some of his erratic behavior. Like when he rescues a young woman from an attempted sexual assault only to kidnap her instead, or his unexplained fixation with sniffing women’s clothes. Just when he starts to get interesting, giving us a taste of the religious-based psychological conflict that drives his instinct to kill, Midnight launches into conventional thriller fare.

It turns out that the federal and state investigations are linked. Lombardo, posing as a prostitute, has been unwittingly courting the killer in an online chatroom. So Crawford enlists her aid in catching the killer.

He’s a good cop who’s frustrated by his department’s reluctance to pursue the case. No one cares about the victims — prostitutes, runaways, and drug addicts — and some even think they got what they deserved. But Crawford believes they deserve justice.

Over the course of his career Willis played many a cop, and this sort of crime thriller is de rigueur for him. But, here, he’s woefully underused in a role that amounts to a glorified cameo.

Fox is the movie’s standout. As Lombardo, she shows that she’s got the chops to play a streetwise cop. She’s convincing throughout, particularly when she finds herself as the killer’s chained-up prisoner after a barroom sting operation goes horribly wrong.

Some viewers might find Midnight in the Switchgrass to be the suspenseful, edge-of-your seat thriller it should be. But when you can guess the twists and turns before they happen, well, maybe you’ve seen one too many entries in the genre to be suitably impressed. ◀

Thriller, rated R, 100 minutes, Amazon Prime, AppleTV, Vudu, 2.5 chiles

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