Thursday, November 10, 2011

Midnight Clear

NetFlix 3.1/5
IMDB 5.7/10
My Rating: 8/10
Sincerity Factor: 9/10
Treacle Factor: 3/10

 On Christmas Eve in a small town, five isolated strangers face despair, but as their individual lives cross paths, each is affected by the others.

So, after the utter misery that was The Christmas Box, here is something cheerier - A Christmas movie about loneliness, depression and suicide!   Straight-up warning going in - This is one of the darkest, bleakest holiday movies I've ever encountered, and yet if you stick with it, there probably won't be a dry eye in the house.  This is an extra-impressive accomplishment considering that the entire movie is rendered without sparkles, magical angels, Christmas wishes, miracles, or anything remotely reindeer-ey.  There isn't even any snow!

It's even more startling when you realize that this is taken from a story by Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the utterly retarded Left Behind series.   I very nearly turned it off when I saw that, because I could not imagine that anything written by a guy who believes the "good people" will be Raptured into space could possibly be enjoyable for me, and I was braced for another massive attack of bad religion.  When it was over, I found to my slightly stunned surprise that A) it was one of the best Christian movies I have ever seen, and B) ironically, this fundamentalist writer has also managed to write perhaps the best humanist Christmas film ever.  High praise, but I have to give him credit - Pick a holiday movie, ANY holiday movie, and you're almost certain to get something where all the unhappiness in the story is set right by some outside magical force, be it angels, God, or Santa.  Midnight Clear stands just about alone in presenting a movie where humans... Just humans... have magnificent impacts on each other's lives simply by doing the small decencies that make society work.

The basic story is this:  Five people face a Christmas Eve night at the end of their tethers.  Kirk is trapped in a dead-end business, a Quick-Stop he purchased in hopes it would be a valuable commercial location.  Young mother Mary struggles with life as a single mom after her husband is left brain-damaged by a car accident.  Mitch is a youth pastor tasked with inspiring his church teens but riven with self-doubt as to his ability to make faith "cool".  Retiree Eva lives alone and methodically plans suicide.  And the main character, Lefty (a stellar performance by Stephen Baldwin), is a hopeless homeless alcoholic, the sort of character we've all met at one time or another, a guy who simply cannot do anything right.  The movie follows each of these stories as they intersect and impact on each other in unexpected ways.

You know you're in for a different sort of Christmas film when it opens with a homeless character living out of his car and being fired on Christmas Eve.  And this isn't homelessness as big budget films would depict, no "wise" hobos or spiritual singing in the alleys here - Lefty is a loser, pure and simple.  It's a magnificent credit to Stephen Baldwin's acting abilities that he's able to imbue this no-hope character with something that keeps you watching, even as he visibly careens further downhill.  Lefty is "that guy", the one who always does the worst thing in the worst situation simply because he doesn't know how to recognize the right thing to do. He's been down so long that he can't see beyond begging the next guy out of $5 of gas money.  The scary thing is that I've been close enough to him to understand his situation...

And, I think, empathy is one of the movie's most-required traits to appreciate it.  In a nutshell, if you haven't stared into this abyss, you'll probably just find it depressing - Comfortable middle-class types will balk and want to change channels to the Hallmark film, or anything that seems cheerier.  Unless you've actually been in a situation where an unexpected stranger handing you a tiny bit of help literally meant all the world to you, you may have trouble appreciating this movie.  For those who can relate, though, it's a terrific film, and as the cover blurb says, "One's heart soars from watching it".

While Lefty's homeless Christmas Eve is the main focus, the other characters are also excellent.  K Callan's Eva, especially, is riveting...  This is an elderly lady who can glue you to the screen just watching her facial expressions change from one moment to the next.  You know her path from the opening scenes, where she hobbles onto a decrepit porch, fills a cat food bowl, pauses, and then pours the remaining food from the bag into a pile on the porch.  The grace, dignity, and stubbornness with which she advances her suicide plan is tragic and chilling.  Kirk and Mary provide some banter when Mary's car breaks down at the Quick Stop, but the fifth character, Mitch, might be my favorite even though he has possibly the least lines and focus.  Mitch is another soul adrift - Unlike the others, he's comfortable and supported by family and community, but is sunk into personal depression, unable to inspire or understand how to live a "good" life.  Maybe he's most of us - Wanting to do a good deed, but not knowing what to do and too inhibited to try.  His Christmas Eve job is unenviable... To herd a group of caroling teens from home to home, visiting shut-ins and passing out care packages from the church:

Mitch is living in the shadow of his injured friend, that guy who really was inspirational to the youth and always did everything right.  He also provides the film's small moments of comic relief as we hop from the tragedies of Lefty and Eva to the atrociously singing teens going door to door.  By the end, these five people have encountered each other in the ways they need, both knowingly and unknowingly, and the story clicks together like a puzzle as  dozen disparate threads snap into place.  It's inspiring and still believable - There are no perfect happy endings here and no one is miraculously delivered from their problems, but they get a tiny bit of help and sometimes that's enough.

Is it perfect?  Nope... The few points of Treacle I gave it above are due to a couple moments of Too-Neat coincidences - Moments or lines that might have been better cut.  Then again, what's a Christmas film without at least a tiny dollop of sentimentality?  I think what impresses me the most is that it's a clearly religious film and I actually liked it - Usually movies with religious messages put me off terribly (I have no problem with religious faith per se, but I have a potent dislike for the dogmatic organized church).  So if a movie can touch me, classic "angry atheist" that I am, it really must be doing something right.  And as I said, I'm left a bit boggled to find that the movie also carries such a profound humanist message, given the fundamentalism of the writer.

In the end, it's a Christmas movie that will make you think, and that's high praise indeed.