I’m a sucker for an oddball comedy. The dry eccentricities of Joel & Ethan have long been a mainstay in my personal ‘movies for mirth’ catalogue, as has the shrill, envelope-pushing depravity of the one and only John Waters, the more cerebral and unequivocally harder-to-watch depravity of Todd Solondz and the bold, stereotype-playful farces of McDonagh siblings Martin and John (I’ll also admit a guilty soft spot for the Tom Green debacle ‘Freddy Got Fingered’ as well). Milking laughs from bizarre and/or unseemly subject matter requires finesse and timing if it’s to be done properly (I know that can be applied to comedy in general, but you don’t want to be consigned to the bin of transparent and desperate attempts to shock), and yours truly is more likely be caught dead in front of something dark, weird and in poor taste than he would an offering from Richard Curtis (those descriptors may even apply in his case, for all the wrong reasons). I can’t laugh at slapstick or wholesome goofiness, it’s just the way I am.
The pre-amble there should hopefully elucidate my anticipation when sitting down to watch 12 Hour Shift, a darkly comic hospital-set crime thriller and the sophomore feature-length effort of writer-director Brea Grant. The cast helmed by scream queen Angela Bettis, it looked to be a lively, potentially grisly and hopefully funny and smart gem that would imbue 2020 with a bit more amusingly beyond-the-pale indie boldness that circumvented all of the cookie-cutter fare. Alas, while the film certainly has strong points, they are sadly outweighed by a truckload of problems that render it a dud.
It’s 1999 in the state of Arkansas, and Mandy (Bettis) is getting ready for the titular shift at an infirmary located in some garden-variety small town. A veteran nurse, Mandy is a drug-dependent, misanthropic burnout whose barely concealed hostility and general life-fatigue raise the question as to how she retains such a demanding people-oriented profession in the first place. To be fair to her, the film opens as she’s trying to enjoy a pre-work cigarette in peace as a thoughtless, passive-aggressive colleague endlessly waffles on about nonsense, so it’s not much of a task to ascertain her ‘Go F**k Yourself’ demeanour.’
After a short while of checking in on patients and interfacing with their loved ones, bantering with kooky colleagues Karen (Nikea Gamby-Turner) and Dorothy (Tara Perry) and tolerating the antagonistic officiousness of shift manager Janet (Brooke Seguin), Mandy slips outside to rendezvous with Regina (Chloe Farnworth), her exasperatingly ditzy trailer-trash cousin who has arrived to make a special collection. As it turns out, Regina is in the employment of a dangerous local organ-trafficking ring led by Nicholas (Mick Foley. Yes, former pro-wrestler Mick Foley) and Mandy is complicit in their exploitation of her profession, handing over bags of human offal to Regina during clandestine meet-ups in the downstairs smoking area for a cut of the profits.
After a pointless, apropos-of-nothing fight over the fact that one of Mandy’s patients is her very own abusive brother, comatose owing to drug problems, Regina storms off and completely forgets the drinks cooler that she uses to smuggle organs back to the gang. With Nicholas and Regina’s equally nasty beau Mikey (Dusty Warren) quickly losing patience, she scuttles back to the hospital and begs Mandy for assistance in locating the desired kidney before they both suffer a fate worse than death. What follows is a gory and over-the-top comedy of errors as Mandy attempts to keep her co-workers in the dark about her nefarious activities and the scheming Regina displays that she isn’t above any action, including murder, when it comes to saving her own arse.
Angela Bettis is certainly inspired casting as Mandy, her deadpan delivery and body language communicating a palpable state of perpetual fed-upness at the idiotic calamity of everyone and everything that surrounds her. She is also the only element in the entire picture that qualifies as a consistent purveyor of laughs, and the fact that she belongs in a better movie is unfortunately not remotely enough to redeem the other facets at play here. All of the remaining characterisation is flat-footed and tonally incoherent.
The problem lies in the movie’s seeming inability to decide whether it wants to be a Coens imitator or a grindhouse homage a la Hobo With A Shotgun. The former example was, for my money, worn on the sleeve of the material in its exaggerated character eccentricity complete with dryly humorous musings on daily affairs, but this tone is quickly and clumsily usurped for a washed-out, uber-bloody and deranged gorefest that increasingly resembles a tip of the hat to the gnarliest brand of midnight cinema. Regina’s momentum-bereft evolution from deluded crackpot bimbo to unconscionable killer feels utterly out of place even in a film as intentionally mad as this one, the diegetic stability of the remainder of the cast sans Bettis going downhill from there. Kit Williamson and David Arquette (the latter also serving as a producer) do actually provide some chuckles as a strangely chilled and gullible cop and a hospitalised convict respectively, but not in any memorable capacity.
And don’t get me started on Matt Glass’ painfully intrusive and ill-fitting score that treads a line somewhere between electro and strange avant-garde orchestral assaults. Doubling up as director of photography no less, Glass’ camerawork is definitely due some credit as he manages to generate pathos in his careful study of Bettis’ weary and stressed-out visage, but it’s average beyond that commendation. The whole thing is too forced to be funny, there isn’t a gag that actually lands neatly and the film’s erratic zigzag between deadpan oddity and surreal ultra-violence isn’t half as clever or solid as it thinks. I know it sounds kind of cool, but give it a miss.