New Film From Writer-Director Jeremy Gardner Succeeds as a Horror Film and a Love Story
The Battery, the 2012 debut feature from writer-director Jeremy Gardner, was a low budget zombie film that hit festivals and home video when there was a zombie film playing every local cinema. The Walking Dead was airing every Sunday night. Every yahoo with a Go Pro seemed to be filming a lo-fi zombie film with his buddies. A zombie in every pot! It was the height of zombie popularity and the beginning of zombie backlash.
So, how did The Battery manage to stand out among all the competition? It was a story about friendship first and zombies second. And everything about the film seemed crafted by hand with love. From the southern gothic production design to the original songs that provided the needle drop soundtrack, everything about The Battery had a heart and integrity to it that the other wannabes did not.
That said, I’m happy to report that Gardner’s latest film with co-director Christian Stella pays off on the promise displayed in Gardner’s previous film. After Midnight is a love story first and a horror film second, but manages to excel at both. The film recently underwent a title change (from Something Else), and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was a tip of the cap to the Linklater Before trilogy. If that love story was “before”, then perhaps this one is what comes “after”.
In the opening scene of the film, we see Hank (Gardner) lying against the front of a sofa that’s been wedged against the double door entrance to his home. He’s pushing against it to keep something at bay. It’s a makeshift barricade. We hear a screech, and Hank leaps to his feet, firing his shotgun through the door. He has the weary look of a man who has done this before, of someone for whom nocturnal survival has become a routine.
We then see Hank in the light of day with Abby (Brea Grant). They clearly love each other and have been together for a number of years. Are their scenes together flashbacks? Is Abby in the home as Hank stands guard at night? Is she a memory? Did she leave him? The opening scenes cleverly play with time and chronology and will have you guessing at the status of their relationship. I won’t dig any deeper into the narrative beats of the film and leave them for you to discover.
Gardner’s film-making is like a great jazz solo. It seems unpredictable in the moment, but upon reflection, you realize that it’s been meticulously constructed. The improvisation flows from hour upon hour of getting the production details right. It’s simultaneously spur-of-the-moment and orchestrated, surprising and inevitable. He’s like a sleight-of-hand artist who tampers with your emotions rather than picking your pocket.
The centerpiece of the film is a 14-minute continuous take of an emotional confrontation between Hank and Abby. We so often think of “one-ers” or single takes in the context of an action film with a camera weaving in and out of the melee with nary a single edit. It’s much rarer to see a single take that documents a sequence of verbal drama. During a brief discussion with actress Brea Grant, she told me they shot the scene twelve times. She stated there were no “mistakes” per se during the various takes, but they tried different nuances until Gardner had what he wanted from the scene. It’s one of my favorite scenes of the year.
Gardner and Grant deliver wonderful, grounded performances. It’s not hammy scenery-chewing acting with a capital A. They give earthy, lived-in performances. Love is probably the most difficult thing to dramatize in a film. That’s why so many movies use sex as a shorthand substitute. “Hey, they have crazy, passionate sex, so they must be in love.” After Midnight avoids those kinds of cliches and gives us a believable couple who have their emotional ups and downs. Our investment in their relationship is what causes all the other elements of the film to pay-off.
I rarely use the term “auteur”. Film is such a collaborative medium that I find it intellectually dishonest to lay all of the accolades at the feet of the director. However, in the case of Jeremy Gardner, he’s developed a unique blend of production design, visual style, use of music, etc. Much like a jazz solo, if you played a brief snippet of one of his films, I would know it’s his work in an instant. He’s an original. And in a world of IPs, sequels and reboots, that’s about the highest praise I can give him.