J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

SF Indie Fest ’18: The Midnighters

Victor Lustig was in prison throughout the 1980s, so he missed Tough Guys with Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster, but he would understand the premise. He also missed Rectify, but now he can start binging it. After forty-some years behind bars, Lustig is finally paroled. Of course, he only had one skill—safe-cracking, but there is still a demand for it in Julian Fort’s The Midnighters (trailer here), which screens tomorrow during the 2018 SF Indie Fest.

Lustig is in his early 70s and practically destitute, with no foreseeable prospects, but he accepts full responsibility for his situation and refuses to feel sorry for himself. Supposedly, an associate was holding his share of the loot for safe-keeping, but it was plundered in the 80s. At this point, it isn’t worth getting upset over, but it necessarily means Lustig could use the money when he is offered a potentially lucrative safe job.

Frankly, the gig smells like trouble, so Lustig probably would have passed if it hadn’t been his long-lost son Danny recruiting him. The junior Lustig apparently entered the family business, but he uses computers rather than dynamite or a stethoscope. However, it is the senior Lustig who better understands the gravity of Danny’s new Russian mob associates.

For years, journeyman character actor Leon Rossum has paid the bills with soap opera work, but his leading man star turn was worth witting for. As Lustig, he nails all the expected hardboiled attitude and world-weariness, but he also conveys the tragic dignity of the Rip Van Winkle character. If this were a major studio release, Rossum would be a shoe-in for awards consideration, but it isn’t, so the lazy guilds and critics groups will just ignore it. It is a shame, because it is terrific work, comparable in several respects to Robert Forster in Jackie Brown.

Rossum’s fellow episodic television veteran John Wesley matches his grizzled charisma but adds some scene-stealing sardonic humor as Lustig’s old crony Chester. Likewise, Larry Cedar largely defines the film with his relatively brief but significant screen time as Lustig’s hope-scuttling parole officer.

About midway through Midnighters, Lustig’s son delivers an amped-up Tarantino-esque monologue, but the old man immediately undercuts it with a brutal reality check. It is about that time most viewers will start to realize this is a really good movie. It is a small, intimate film, but Fort polishes it to a gem-like sheen. The actual caper business is rather clever, but it feels like a secondary concern compared to the study of Lustig’s flawed but deeply compelling character. Very highly recommended, The Midnighters screens tomorrow (2/11), as part of this year’s SF Indie Fest.

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