Until it reveals its actual Christian purpose in the final minutes, “Midnight Clear” will easily fool many viewers into thinking they’re watching a modest Coen brothers-style comedy-thriller. This conventional but sensitively observed tale, drawing together disparate and mostly lonely lives on Christmas Eve, is a religiously motivated pic (and winner of the debut film prize at Cinequest) that could play with crowds put off by much contempo cinema, pointing to unlikely theatrical sale but fair vid and cable biz.
It may also draw those curious about what Stephen Baldwin has been up to since becoming a strong Christian advocate. Unlike, say, Val Kilmer (who has yet to do a Christian Science-themed movie), Baldwin has evidently put his career where his beliefs are, giving one of his better perfs as a sad-sack loser and divorcee at the end of his rope who experiences a touch of kindness.
Baldwin’s Lefty (so nicknamed despite his being right-handed) is only one of several folks whose lives, in an overt nod to “Magnolia,” grow increasingly connected as Yuletide draws nigh. With ex-wife Heather (Faline England) having left him two years ago, Lefty is trying to stay off the booze and gain back his child visitation rights, but his chronic tardiness at work leads to his dismissal. Living in his car and sans lawyer, he’s outgunned in a meeting with Heather’s attorneys, and ends up stealing from his former employer so he can get his hands on a gun.
Elsewhere, Mary (Mary Thornton) is raising young son Jacob (Dominic Scott Kay) on her own since husband Rick (producer Kevin Downes) suffered head trauma in a motorcycle accident with friend Mitch (Mitchell Jarvis) exactly a year earlier.
Mitch, who’s perfectly healthy but feeling the pinch of the accident’s anniversary, is assigned by his church pastor, Mark (Richard Fancy), to take a group of teens caroling. Mitch’s whiny complaint that this activity is pointless slots him as the Doubting Thomas of Wes Halula’s script, drawn from director Dallas Jenkins’ short pic (which, in turn, was based on father Jerry B. Jenkins’ short story).
Saddest and most heartfelt thread belongs to Eva (K Callan), an elderly woman living alone who at first seems merely forgetful about her meds, but is actually intending to kill herself with an overdose. Gently extended gag has her coming this close to downing the mixture, only to be interrupted by a series of phone calls and knocks on the door from Meals on Wheels, Mitch’s carolers and, finally, Lefty — her son.
When Mary and Jacob are stuck with their broken-down car at a gas station run by kindly Kirk (Kirk B.R. Woller), pic’s various strands appear to be coming together, especially when the inept Lefty arrives packing his pistol. But Jenkins expends so much time and effort bringing the separate pieces together that when the narrative intersections finally do occur, they’re resoundingly anticlimactic and feel less affecting than manipulative.
A certain Pollyannaish aura descends over “Midnight Clear” just when it seems to be turning into a movie about the real lives of Americans barely holding on emotionally and economically. The third act’s blunt message — that a few selfless acts of kindness are enough to transform lives, capped by a visit to church — is the kind of optimism that’s unearned, based on the difficulties several characters have been enduring.
Callan and Baldwin quietly encapsulate pic’s best qualities as a study in human sadness, and Baldwin admirably underplays his assignment as the film’s stock Coen brothers character — goofy one minute, potentially lethal the next. Supporting cast is notably weaker, indicating the need for a stronger helmer. Production package captures the dullsville atmosphere of a nondescript working-class Texas town.