That Bruce Willis grimace. It’s almost as much a trademark as his smirk. When the actor’s mouth tightens and his eyes squint in “Survive the Night,” you’d like to think it’s because his character is feeling the pain. Emotionally, Frank’s estranged from his son. After a run-in with the movie’s two baddies, the retired sheriff will be hurting physically, too.
Not long into the action, a grimace becomes the only appropriate response to this try-hard flick, directed by Matt Eskandari and written by Doug Wolfe, about what happens when two brothers on the lam violently enlist the surgical services of Frank’s son. Chad Michael Murray plays Rich, who’s in the process of rebuilding his life after a malpractice suit ended his burgeoning medical career. With wife Jan (Lydia Hull) and daughter Riley (Riley Wolfe Rach) in tow, Rich is back living with his sympathetic mom (Jessica Abrams) and a sternly denigrating Frank. The upright (and self-disgraced) doc can’t catch a break from his judgmental dad and is having an equally hard time mollifying his angry wife.
The on-demand release of “Survive the Night” signals a kind of Throwback Friday. But not because of Willis’ being cast as a one-time lawman with a family under duress. Though there is that. Instead the film harkens to a time before streaming, and certainly long before the virtual theater platforms distributors are employing to connect with moviegoers during the coronavirus crisis, when “straight to video” was nearly an epithet. (The film was produced by Emmet/Furla Oasis Films, the outfit behind the 2008 “Rambo” reboot, “Gotti” and 16 additional paycheck projects for Willis.)
Before flying off the rails, “Survive the Night” screams against them with clichés, as Jamie and Mathias Granger wistfully discuss plans to head for “the border” while looking mighty grimy in their getaway ride. They’ve left a body in their wake and soon there will be hell to pay. It quickly becomes clear that as much as he wants to do right by his big brother, Jamie (Sean Buckner) has impulse-control issues.
“Hey, no killing,” insists Matty (Tyler Jon Olson). That he has to repeat this fine advice throughout the movie (even as his leg wound looks destined for sepsis) says something about his unhinged bro but also underlines his failure at being a psycho-whisper. He’s supposed to be the wiser, kinder one; how true this is turns out to be one of the movie’s moral hooks.
An ill-conceived robbery at a convenience store turns brutal and plays up the loose-cannon aspects of the brothers’ relationship. There should be a special circle of what-the-heck for filmmakers who inflict sadistic mayhem on minor characters to score pedestrian points about fealty and love. Among the ways to glean a movie’s intentions may be not only who’s left standing in the end, but also who receives redemption.
The movie proposes a parallel, more vexed, less pathological relationship between Frank and Rich. The bad guys, sitting with a bag of money in the back seat of their car, dig each other. The upstanding guy sits in the kitchen of his parents’ house staring at bankruptcy paperwork, his wife fuming. It’s a world gone mad.
Rich has been given a second chance at the local Country Clinic. That’s the bright signage that beckons the Granger brothers. As Matty slumps further down the seat, Jamie goes looking for someone to repair his brother. The movie begins to feel like a country crock.
For the briefest of moments, as the pair trail Rich in the darkness back to the big family house surrounded by woods and fields, the setup stirred memories of the Clutter family of “In Cold Blood.” But that’s hardly fair to that dark, wrenching movie. The torments about to befall Rich, Frank and their womenfolk are in the name of an overtaxed breed of movie.
Returning Willis to his old stomping grounds — with allowances for the slowing of age — is understandable: the movie version of comfort food. But the (grand)daddy-cop-hero fix we may be hankering for doesn’t much work.
The movie’s point — that family matters in ways good and evil — doesn’t rate as news. Especially as the film clumsily exploits the grandmother-wife-daughter triumvirate. For quite a spell, Rich’s wife and daughter crouch beneath a workshop table, apparently waiting for the third act. Olson and Buckner aren’t sympathetic as the brother villains, but they are more vivid. Watching Murray’s wounded doc lurch around grimacing in his effort to make good in the eyes of his wife and father (not in that order) gives the title accidental resonance for viewers.
Arguably, the most exciting turn goes to a foxy, blue vintage Dodge Challenger. A small knot of cattle comes in a close second, scampering away from roar of the car chase. Because, yes, there’s got to be one of those, too.