This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by Rory Doherty.
12 Hour Shift Review (2020)
Director: Brea Grant
Screenwriters: Brea Grant
Starring: Angela Bettis, Chloe Farnsworth, Tara Perry, Mick Foley, David Arquette
Seeing a character’s superficially respectable life clash dramatically with their hidden and criminal alter-ego is a great way to tell a tense, compelling story. 12 Hour Shift has such a premise – when drug-addicted nurse Mandy (Angela Bettis) arrives for her double-shift at a local hospital, her side-hustle of black market organ trafficking threatens to intrude on her barely-kept-together normal life. Her cousin Regina (Chloe Farnworth) misplaces the illicitly harvested goods, meaning they now must acquire new organs, avoid detection by law enforcement, and evade the criminals let loose in the hospital. It’s an energetic Southern caper in the style of Logan Lucky and Raising Arizona, with a welcome focus on active female characters. While there are enough fun elements to ensure you’ll painlessly coast through the runtime, you can’t help but wonder about how much more fun the film would be if its execution was a bit more polished.
Writer-director Brea Grant is more experienced as an actor, but her talents as a writer of things twisted won 12 Hour Shift the Best Screenplay award at Fantasia Fest 2020. It’s easy to see why. The script has a catchy premise and a solid structure. Mandy is well-established as a snappy nurse on the edge, with a knack for pocketing pills and no interest in improving her bedside manner. In terms of screenwriting, stealing food from a coma patient is a great way to show your lead character is a scummy person.
Bettis’ performance captures Mandy’s stern and nasty demeanor with great moments of comic humour, awkwardly genuflecting in the hospital chapel or painfully flirting with cops to get something out of them. While it’s fun seeing Mandy’s duplicitous nature, we’re unsure at times about how well-known her criminal activity is among the staff, so the tension about her keeping it secret is not as effective as it could be. Cinematographer and composer Matt Glass crafts a score that builds from rhythmic drums to resounding strings, which works jointly with fast-moving handheld shots of Mandy pacing through the hospital to help us feel the numerous crises that are consuming her.
The rest of the characters feel suitably erratic and defined, if a little broad. Farnworth’s unhinged and eccentric performance as the organ fence Regina is a strong foil to Bettis, but occasionally her characterisation feels more annoying than likeable. This is no fault of Farnworth’s, as her reactions and mannerisms all feel authentic, especially against the gangsters she deals with. However, the trope of quippy and unstable criminals made popular by Tarantino and continued by Martin McDonagh is now definitely tired, and the crime boss’ threatening nature is noticeably hampered by their exaggerated, shouty performance. We’re never fully convinced that something terrible will happen to Mandy and Regina if they don’t do these criminals’ bidding, as they seem to be fending for themselves admirably.
This is made less of a problem by the fact that the criminals are only a small element of the plot. One by one, different elements start piling up on Mandy’s shift that complicate her getting the organs – whether it’s an overdose patient with a mysterious connection to Mandy, the escape of a murder convict (David Arquette), or people waking up from comas at inopportune times. It’s worth noting that all of these story beats are coincidences, each successive complication piles up unrelated to Mandy or Regina’s actions. Coincidences aren’t forbidden when it comes to screenwriting, they just need to be used appropriately.
Former Pixar story artist Emma Coats laid out a series of storytelling rules used at the animation studio, and number 19 hits upon this issue perfectly, “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.” The Coen brothers are masters of coincidence, when they pile up in Fargo or Burn After Reading they never feel like a cop-out, instead we find the relentless succession of convoluted plot elements amusing. The same could be said of 12 Hour Shift – there’s no problem with having all these unrelated threads pile on top of Mandy because the point of the story is her being overwhelmed by the totality of her world collapsing in the course of one night.
However, there is a problem with how slickly these threads are integrated into the story. The turbulence of Mandy’s shift is never fully captured because of the lack of steadily building momentum as things fall apart. We jump from one chaotic set piece to another, each feeling disconnected and distinct, making it seem as though Mandy’s night is not as complicated and confused as it ought to be.
Despite the disconnect, 12 Hour Shift manages to be unpredictable. An explosive midpoint where Mandy and Regina each take drastic action is accompanied with Glass’ dramatic score and characters singing gospel hymns, fully leaning into the pulpy, operatic feel of the film. In the second half, the chaos is on full display, and the environment of the hospital is utilised brilliantly for comedic and dramatic effect—the slippery floors, intersecting corridors and even a plot-relevant vending machine are all focused on by the camera to dial up tension and deliver satisfying conclusions.
There are points where 12 Hour Shift, like a double shift in a tedious work environment, starts to drag. Moments in the final sequences that showcase Mandy going out of her way to be a good nurse feel jarring when we’ve seen how willing she is to abuse patients for her own gain. But one thing Grant portrays well is the stifling nature of long nights in hospitals, so when we’re treated to a sudden dose of startling violence we feel the impact all the more. The way 12 Hour Shift embraces its trashier elements, and its commitment to dark humour and excessive brutality, is commendable. We’re treated to a variety of female characters, all well-defined and active in the story, but because the film isn’t as stylish and effortless as the black comedies it’s emulating, 12 Hour Shift can’t help but to feel a little lacking. A cast of engaging performances and unexpected turns in the story can’t entirely make up for a film that feels too underwhelming for the shocking story it’s telling.
Written by Rory Doherty
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