What would you do if you were on the run with a gang of homicidal bikers after you on the eve of a nuclear holocaust? When your car broke down in the desert on the way to Vegas, would you take a ride in an RV with some very grumpy religious kooks?
Well, if you were Joe Manning, the answer would be yes... and no. But the scenario is more complicated given that Joe's ethics are severely compromised, he's carrying a satchel full of valuables, and he's prone to premonitions.
The kooks in question are Atlas, a prophet of sorts who seems to know way more about Joe and his business than he ought; Dawn, a follower of Atlas who’s convinced that the world ends tomorrow... because Atlas says it will; and Harry, another loner like Joe who’s just along for the ride.
After Joe falls asleep, he finds that the RV has not gone to Vegas at all—and has instead been parked way off the beaten track in the high desert. It’s long after dark, and Atlas has no intention of going anywhere. When the world ends, he’s determined to meet his maker right where he is—especially since his visions have shown him that Joe will be dead before the next sundown anyway. Why take a corpse to Vegas?
As Joe, Dawn, and Atlas while the night away sparring over whether the world will end and where the RV will be when that happens, Joe's visit to the desert gets increasingly mystical. Harry tries to convince him that the best way to make it to Vegas is to off Atlas and hotwire the RV; and when Joe instead tries to leave on foot, he has troubles with rattlesnakes and spooks. An eerie encounter with an Indian by a campfire sends him veering back to the R.V.
After a while, Joe starts to catch on that things—and people—aren't what they seem, and that a high-stakes battle for his soul is being waged. Atlas shows him, for instance, that every dark deed will come to light, and that every act has consequences. Once you go down a certain road far enough, there's really no turning back.
If you were Joe, you'd probably reach a point through all of this where you'd start to think that being clever isn't enough, that exchanging one predicament for another really isn't much of an improvement. You'd probably start wishing that your recent past wouldn't catch up to you, that you could pick Plan B instead of obvious, easy Plan A. In a deliciously inventive narrative twist, first-time feature writer/director Derrick Warfel gives Joe that chance in what might be called It's A Wonderful Twilight Butterfly Zone.
Old Testament Apocalyptic Aesthetic
Midnight Reckoning, due out on DVD October 21, is a low-budget indie that betrays many of its financial limitations. It's essentially a one-room stage play with the luxury of a few exterior sequences; it can't get too wild in the gore and hocus pocus departments because dialogue is a lot cheaper to film than effects; and some sequences feel as if Warfel didn't have the shot coverage he wished he'd had.
But what Reckoning lacks in budget it more than makes up for in chutzpah and intelligence. Though this is not a horror film per se—it bills itself as a "psy-fi" morality tale inspired by the likes of Rod Serling—it leverages an audience's willingness to believe in a moral order. And in this case, that moral order is provided by an Evangelical Protestant worldview that nonetheless posits a very Old Testament apocalyptic aesthetic: prophets who cut to the quick with their words; devilish temptations that are quite real and not just metaphorical; and a God who, as one of Job's buddies puts it, really does reveal himself through dreams and visions. What's really nice is that Warfel has both the cinematic and theological chops to put that all together in a way that's both engaging and satisfying.
Middle Sags but Conclusion Redeems
Granted, the middle of the film sags quite a bit as Warfel puts Joe, Dawn, and Atlas through convoluted pretexts to get them in and out of the RV as a means of breaking up the dialogue; but it's all those words that are really the heart of the movie—not the arresting images that open the film, or the really neat twist that Warfel spins. And the film's conclusion is truly redemptive, if the denouement overstays its welcome just a bit.
Bruce Michael Hall and Persia White both turn in solid, professional leading performances as Joe and Dawn, while Tony Longo and Grant Bowler are well used in the smaller, more one-dimensional roles of Atlas and Harry. This isn't the greatest film to come along since The Sixth Sense, but, to be honest, it made me think an awful lot of Spielberg's TV movie Duel or the Peter Fonda / Warren Oates nail-biter Race With the Devil. A lot of low-budget films in the 1970s really were better off for their limited budgets, and Midnight Reckoning fits right in with that tradition. I'm glad that Warfel managed to navigate the festival circuit with this film over the last three years and finally find a way to bring it to market.
Midnight Reckoning is rated PG-13 for drug content and violent images. That's fair. This isn't kiddie fare, and that's okay as the change-your-life-or-else deal is pretty irrelevant for the pre-teen set anyway.
Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional DVD of Midnight Reckoning.