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

By Lynn Venhaus

When the Academy Award nominations are announced on March 15, I will wager that Andra Day will be among the five names listed for Best Actress. She is ferocious in her portrayal of the troubled, self-destructive and talented vocalist – and even more remarkable, it is her first major acting role.

Day, a Grammy-nominated R&B singer, summons raw emotion when depicting Holiday’s sad, sordid life. When she is on stage, singing Holiday’s classics, she is incandescent.

Costume designer Paulo Nieddu, known for “Sex and the City” and “Empire,” provides an elegant and opulent look for the entertainer, while the hair and makeup department’s work is award-worthy.

Starting in 1947, iconic jazz and blues singer Billie Holiday (Andra Day) was targeted by the Federal Department of Narcotics for not only her heroin use, but also for singing the praised yet controversial “Strange Fruit,” which is about a lynching. An undercover sting operation is led by black federal agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), with whom she had a tumultuous affair.

Unfortunately, Day is far better than the film’s material. While focusing on the last 10 years of Holiday’s life, director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks cram too much into the narrative and allow characters to come and go with little context.

It’s frustrating to watch because of the inconsistencies, and the rest of the characters are caricatures.

Parks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, adapted the screenplay from Johann Mari’s book, “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs,” specifically the chapter “The Black Hand.”

The bold “Strange Fruit” helped Holiday gain prominence, but the ballad was a lightning rod for controversy and her defiance was a source of aggravation for the feds.

 In 1999, Time magazine called it “The Song of the Century” and it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978. The song is credited as a catalyst in the civil rights movement.

But back in her day, Lady Day suffered for her art.

Garrett Hedlund, who desperately needs a hit after a string of duds since his breakout role in the 2004 film “Friday Night Lights,” plays the antagonistic bigoted bully Harry Anslinger, head of the bureau, almost as if he’s Snidely Whiplash.

Natasha Lyonne plays actress Tallulah Bankhead, who was rumored to have a relationship with Holiday, but it’s a useless part of the narrative, and just dropped in with little context.

Faring better is Trevante Rhodes as Jimmy Fletcher, a complex agent who falls in love with Holiday. Their relationship is confounding, mainly because of Holiday’s other husbands and lovers – and hard to keep who’s who straight because of the jumps back and forth. Rhodes, who played the grown-up Chiron in “Moonlight,” does what he can with playing a real, conflicted character.

Holiday’s personal life was messy, and the movie shows how drug use, excessive drinking, non-stop smoking and abuse by awful men lead to her decline. It’s a tragic tale, to be sure, but the graphic shots of injecting heroin and the physical assaults are tough to watch.

However, as the third film this past year showing how evil J. Edgar Hoover’s moves as the director of the FBI were, it is always worth remembering his abuses of power. (The other two films: “MLK/FBI” and “Judas and the Black Messiah”).

While Day shines a light on this legend, the film ultimately disappoints. Holiday, and Day, deserved better.

Andra Day stars in THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY from Paramount Pictures. Photo Credit: Takashi Seida.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is a biographical drama, directed by Lee Daniels and starring Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund,. It is rated R for drug use, domestic violence, language, nudity and mature themes and the run time is 2 hours, 9 minutes.
Lynn’s Grade: B. Now available streaming on Hulu.