Christmas is a long way off, but many people look forward to jingling bells all year round. For them, it’s a wonderful time with family, friends, exchanging of gifts and general merriment. For many others, though, Christmas can be a depressing time of the year. There’s even a long-running myth that suicide rates increase significantly over the holidays. Yes, it’s a myth, but it endures because it’s easy to imagine why people might hit rock bottom when others around them are so darn happy.
Midnight Clear is a film inspired by the myth, but it feels no less poignant in light of the facts. It’s a universal story with an understated message, about the difference small acts of kindness can make in people’s lives.
The tale began with a short story by bestselling writer Jerry B. Jenkins, co-author of the evangelical series Left Behind, about the end times. We learn on the DVD that Jenkins had heard a statistic about increased suicide rates during the holidays, and was inspired to write a story about people struggling on Christmas Eve. In 2005, his son, Dallas Jenkins, directed a short film based on that story. It was well-received at a few festivals, so they decided to turn it into a feature-length movie.
That’s the history behind Midnight Clear, starring Stephen Baldwin (The Usual Suspects), K Callan (Carnivale) and relative unknowns Kirk B. R. Woller (The Unit), Richard Fancy (General Hospital), Mitchell Jarvis and Mary Thornton. It’s an ensemble piece, following the intersecting lives of five people, structured along the lines of Crash. Baldwin plays Lefty, a sad sack alcoholic who’s really down on his luck – homeless, jobless and probably losing the right to see his kids. Callan plays a lonely elderly woman who’s estranged from her family. Woller is the owner-operator of a struggling gas station. Thornton is a mother struggling to deal with her husband’s brain-damaged state. Jarvis is a church youth pastor who’s disillusioned about making any sort of positive impact on people’s lives. He’s supported by Fancy, who plays the church’s insightful senior pastor.
As the story unfolds, we delve slowly into the tough times these characters are living, and hope for a change in their situations. Their paths cross in different ways, and each encounter reveals something about the people and what simple life moments can really mean for them. The strength of Midnight Clear is that it’s not heavy handed with its message, the details of the plot or even the actors’ performances. Baldwin’s Lefty sets the tone, with reserved, soft-spoken delivery, an effective portrayal of a man dangerously close to self-destruction. Callan, Thornton and Jarvis also carry their scenes particularly well.
The film’s weakest points are its direction and overall design, both likely a product of a low budget and director Jenkins’ inexperience. There’s also a comic misfire in a scene when Lefty trespasses at his old workplace and gets run off by an obese security guard toting a mug of coffee and behind the wheel of a golf cart. First-time screenwriter Wes Halula was probably looking for a moment of levity in an otherwise heavy story, but it just feels grossly out of place. None of these negative points is enough to discount Midnight Clear, though.
The best thing Midnight Clear has going for it is that it holds back. It doesn’t throw every sad detail about the characters’ lives at its viewers, and most importantly it doesn’t fall prey to delivering a magical Christmas miracle. The audience might be hoping for one, but it would have completely compromised the film’s otherwise realistic material. That’s not to say the story isn’t ultimately uplifting – it is. But that’s because in the end, Midnight Clear is about small, real moments making big differences.
Midnight Clear is presented on a single disc, in 1.78:1 widescreen format. It looks okay, but not as good as you’d expect from a modern DVD. It’s a little tough to pinpoint exactly what the issues are, because a lot of the film has been made to look cold and bleak. In that respect, the picture is successful. Unfortunately, sometimes what might be intentional just looks fuzzy and faded. The colours are quite muted, and there’s a somewhat inconsistent level of grain throughout. Overall, these aren’t issues that will throw most viewers off, but videophiles might be annoyed.
The only audio presentation is English in Dolby Digital 2.0. As you’d expect, the track doesn’t sound particularly full, even with simulated surround via your receiver. But then, this is a pretty quiet movie. Just as the scenes are reserved, the audio is minimal in effects and score. This is a dialogue-driven drama, and every line comes through perfectly clear, with consistent levels, which means it sounds just fine. Granted, with a 5.1 surround mix the film might have had more atmosphere, with better use of directional effects.
While audio is English-only, subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
Midnight Clear is a low-budget production, but this DVD does have a couple of extras: a short behind the scenes featurette, Behind the Clear, and a commentary track featuring director Dallas Jenkins, his father, author and executive producer Jerry B. Jenkins, and screenwriter Wes Halula. Behind the Clear runs a little over 10 minutes, and features the cast and crew complimenting each other and discussing what the story means to them. In the commentary, all three participants offer a fairly good level of insight into the production, discussing the history behind it, the transitions from short story to short film to feature film, working with the actors and more.
I must admit, I didn’t expect to like Midnight Clear. When I saw the name Jerry B. Jenkins featured prominently on the DVD cover, I immediately pegged the film as a low-end faith film, along the lines of movies like Facing the Giants and Fireproof — both relatively successful despite their glaring faults. But elder Jenkins himself seemed to be reading my mind when he said in Behind the Clear that Hollywood seems to want more faith-based films, and he wanted to ensure they weren’t poor quality productions that make a quick buck. Midnight Clear may have faith at its core, but it succeeds as a good story, not a faith flick.