By Lynn Venhaus
The lengthy hunt for a sicko responsible for torturing, raping and murdering multiple teenage girls, known as “The Truck Stop Killer,” deserves better than the poorly executed “Midnight in the Switchgrass.”
An undercover FBI agent (Megan Fox) teams up with a Florida state police officer (Emile Hirsch) to investigate a string of unsolved murder cases.
This true-crime thriller involving a long-haul trucker living a double life, Robert Ben Rhoades, here known as Peter (Lukas Haas), had the potential to be an absorbing drama, but first-time director Randall Emmett, although a veteran producer, and rookie screenwriter Alan Horsnail serve up a plodding standard operating procedural. They fumble with erratic pacing and cookie-cutter characters.
Nevertheless, Hirsch’s earnest, intense performance as Pensacola lawman Byron Crawford stands out in the tall prairiegrass.
But don’t expect a decent turn from Bruce Willis, who is merely window dressing as a jaded FBI agent close to retirement, Karl Helter, who verbally spars with fellow investigator Rebecca Lombardo on intent and methods.
They are teamed to infiltrate sex trafficker rings, but Lombardo, a convincing Fox, stumbles onto the trail of a mass murderer. Fox’s character is committed to caring about the victims, mostly “invisibles” – runaways, prostitutes, hitchhikers, drug addicts, and thinks their lives matter.
That concern is shared by Crawford, who goes rogue when another young woman’s body is found, this one with the same bite marks that he has seen on other victims. And then when a prostitute is killed at the Oasis Motel, he thinks it is the guy that was planning to meet Rebecca, who had engaged “BigRigGlory” online. The pair set up a sting that goes horribly wrong.
The filmmakers have moved the real serial killer’s location from Texas to Florida. Haas, who broke through as the young Amish boy in “Witness,” actually starred in “Alpha Dog” with Willis and Hirsch before, but has no interaction with them here.
Naturally, we get a glimpse of him as a loving family man, doting on his daughter Bethany (Olive Elise Abercrombie), at his remote homestead. A shed on his property is where he shackles his victims and tortures them before discarding their bodies. Haas is creepy as the sadistic pervert, but the story’s predictability doesn’t help. Although the escalating cat-and-mouse game builds in suspense towards the film’s resolution, that in itself is rather abrupt.
Fox, who met her current boyfriend, Machine Gun Kelly, on the set – he plays an abusive pimp, using his real name of Colson Baker – conveys street smarts and a dedication to her job, while hinting at a troubled life.
The supporting cast includes Sistine Stallone, Sylvester’s daughter, as Heather, the sister of a missing girl, Tracey, well-played by Caitlin Carmichael, who handles a harrowing escape with real grit.
Welker White is moving as one of the dead girls’ mothers, Georgia Kellogg, who is visited by Crawford.
The music is maudlin and despite Hirsch’s interesting portrayal, not much distinguishes this from a “Dateline” episode.
“Midnight in the Switchgrass” is a true crime thriller directed by Randall Emmett and starring Emile Hirsch, Megan Fox, Lukas Haas and Bruce Willis. Rated R for violence and language throughout, its runtime is 1 hour, 39 minutes. It is in theaters and available Video on Demand on July 23 and released on DVD and Blu-Ray July 27. Lynn’s Grade: C.
Lynn’s Grade: C
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.