Filmed in Blaine, Midnight Money debuts Friday
“Midnight Money,” a feature film shot in Blaine last November by Blaine natives Christopher Onyon and Magnus Gervol, has its first public showing tomorrow night, Friday, November 11, as a part of the Northwest Projections Film Festival in Bellingham.
The film will be screened at the Pickford Cinema, 1416 Cornwall Avenue at 7 p.m. and again on Sunday, November 13, at 11:30 a.m. Admission is $6.
The cast, crew, sponsors and friends first saw the film at a release party held at Smuggler’s Inn last month. The reaction from the 150 or so in attendance was understandably positive, but it also showcased the unexpectedly sophisticated talents of Onyon and Gervol, the film’s collaborators and life-long friends.
The two have produced a stunningly powerful look at the human cost of illicit drug-related activities that go on every night along the U.S. – Canada border, including Blaine. It gets behind the impressive statistics about the billion dollar crop of high grade marijuana grown annually in B.C., literally worth its weight in gold once moved south of the border, to paint a dark and foreboding image of the life led by the main character, Steve Quick, a “mule” (drug transporter) whose primary motivation in his pathetic life of hopeless stagnation is paranoia.
As difficult as it is to project a feeling through film, these two manage quite well, giving us an excellent little film noir that takes the viewer inside the emotional darkness and deterioration of the main character as his world begins to get out of control, threatening his survival.
Gervol, who wrote the screenplay with Onyon, said “audiences are smart. There’s a lot we don’t have to tell them so we didn’t.” By keeping the details out of the way the 75-minute feature has a directness and power, like a loudly shouted warning about a way of life that’s being lived not too far away, sometimes directly underfoot. Blaine looks nice in the film but the shifts to the world that Quick inhabits are like peeling back a nice-looking carpet to reveal a rotten floor infested with cockroaches.
Midnight Money achieves a kind of frantic nervousness with an accelerating pace that moves quickly, pausing now and then but not long enough to give the audience a chance to rest any more than this ordinary looking but low-life ex-con drug dealer can rest when living in such constant fear. The garish, street-lamp look gives it the flavor of the many reality TV shows about cops that use footage from police videos. The technical achievement of filming at night, often in the rain, while preserving a realistic look for people, vegetation, pavement and even fog is impressive, about which more later.
It doesn’t really have a beginning and ending because it’s not a “beginning-middle-end” kind of story. It just starts in the middle of one incident, a botched smuggling attempt somewhere east of the truck route, in a life smothered by confused indecision, like the fog that inhabits much of the film. As film noir it’s a vignette, a picture of a slice of life that’s become limited by the main character’s desperation – over what, we aren’t told and it really doesn’t matter: crime doesn’t pay, and here it is again, not paying.
As the story goes along, Steve Quick, is almost imperceptibly lowered into an obsessive concern with surviving whatever the next few hours may bring, whether it’s a broken-down get away car, a confrontation with jaded cops or a verbal joust with sadistic, unpredictable drug dealers. You find yourself resisting their world but also curious, sometimes desperately so, to find out what happens next.
Quick, in fact, is slowly being squeezed by forces in his life he can no longer control, as if he’s underneath a weight that’s slowly crushing him to death. Throughout the film one feels this impending sense of doom and annihilation that Gervol and Onyon skillfully amplify bit by bit. It spirals downward toward what we hope is an unlikely miracle or, more likely, Quick’s extinction. But it doesn’t end there, no more than a tree branch ends when the tip is pruned.
Perhaps the best thing about the film is how it tells its story by contrasts of many different kinds, what’s similar and what’s not, while maintaining a gritty, in-your-face realism, another hallmark of the Noir genre. It’s as shocking early on as “Pulp Fiction,” given the somewhat freely written dialog that often allows the actors to put things in their own words. Non-drug dealers in the audience can expect to squirm a bit at the constantly foul language that would have most kids immediately sent to their rooms, but Onyon and Gervol were after authenticity, “and you know what? That’s exactly how they talk,” said Onyon, “and we all know it.”
“Midnight Money” is an impressive achievement in a technical sense because nothing gets in the way of the story. At one point, when key scenes are repeated from different points of view, it’s hard to believe Onyon only had one camera to work with.
For example, one sequence that shows Quick and his accomplice Matt driving down Peace Portal Way looks realistic because the camera was clamped to an arm extending outside the passenger’s window, and the street lights that are reflected in the windshield as they drive along are exactly right.
“Sure they are,” Onyon said, “but think about that. To make them look so correct that even locals wouldn’t pay much attention to them took a lot of planning.” It also says a lot about director of photography Nik Perleros’ skills in both shooting and editing.
Onyon and Gervol spent a long time selecting the cast, and found some good people who work together well. Western Washington University drama student Amber Michelle Burroff, who effectively plays Quick’s skanky live-in girlfriend Rena, also persuaded her boyfriend Ethan Ehr to try out, and he won the lead role. The couple plays together well, their one bedroom scene as unobtrusively dull as most moments in married life. Bellingham’s Zak Van Winkel plays a sniveling and dull-witted cocaine addict named Matt just right, neither under-playing the character or going over the top a la Jim Carrey. Rick Collier, a border guard since 1972 in real life, brings that experience to his role as the nearly retired and thoroughly jaded agent Tom Walker, supported by the beefy Paul Hassett and Kevin Gilbert.
David Nugent’s excellent sound and the score he composed display the 14 songs used in the movie like candles on a cake, a delightful listening experience even if used in support of such a sordid topic, giving the piece a big-league studio feel.
Though there are some silly moments in the beginning, they’re there to set you up before the movie plunges into darkness like car keys dropped in a well, getting very serious in a heartbeat. This is not another Blair Witch Project somehow let loose in Lincoln Park. It’s Spike Lee meets Gervol and Onyon and finds a couple of skilled colleagues with something to talk about.
November 11 screening @ the Pickford Cinema 7 p.m.
Sunday, November 13 Screening @ the Pickford Cinema 11:30 a.m.
Sunday, November 13 Awards Ceremony @ the Dreamspace 7 p.m.
The film’s website: www.semiahmoofilms.com.