Written by Gardner, who co-directed with Christian Stella, “After Midnight” channels this state of mind for half a movie, and it can feel relatively narrow. The timing is padded out with some kooky monologues by his dopey, not-so-helpful friend Wade (Henry Zebrowski), who drinks from the mat at Hank’s bar, and an appearance by Justin Benson as an old-fashioned cop and sibling to Abby. The movie is almost so proud of its monster metaphor that it doesn’t dig into it; instead it’s more images of Abby, juxtaposed with Hank’s grungy shield. And despite the progressive physical wear that comes from Gardner’s beat performance, like whenever the monster pops up, “After Midnight” appears to be limited and let itself stay that way. At its worse, it risks losing the viewer with Hank’s shallow sulking and aimless bangs of the monster in the night.
But that’s not the last we see of Abby, a detail I share so that you too stick with the movie. She re-appears as if out of nowhere halfway through, and not long after the two clear things up about her disappearance. The scene unfolds with them waiting for the monster, for 13 minutes, sitting in the doorway on the eve of her 34th birthday. It’s a well-written, emotionally incisive volley of their different grievances, the microaggressions he thinks he can justly hold over her, and the melancholic clarifications she retorts about her own wants with her big picture in life, ideas he has previously looked past. He still struggles to look her in the eyes when she talks to him about serious notions of a future, of maybe living somewhere else than the middle of nowhere. This centerpiece creates a full picture of what has really been going on in their diverging, ten-year relationship; it’s the entire movie with no monster needed. It’s just these flesh-and-blood performances, and a camera that very, very slowly pushes into them—the most gentle but effective touch that filmmaking has to get us to pay attention to something staged like excellent theater.
This is the first passage in which I was deeply invested in “After Midnight,” and it makes the scenes before it slightly more worthwhile as creating unsuspecting anticipation. For all of Hank’s rosy flashbacks, this is the reality check. And for all of the ways that Gardner and Stella’s editing abruptly shakes Hank from his daydreams, while banking half of its movie on a monster waiting game, this is the long hard look. The movie evolves with this scene, in a way that only skilled storytellers could accomplish, and the ingenuity from directors Gardner and Stella makes the emotions all the more heightened in what plays out next.