Effective, if a little dated, Midnight Express wasn’t nearly the horror story I was expecting. Being told it’d make me petrified of travelling abroad, I was anxious going into it. I almost wanted to be horrified. I was expecting to be challenged. Instead, though occasionally disturbed, for the most part it felt weak and dilute. There’s no denying that what William Hayes went through was hell. I’d never presume to argue that. However, the execution here, including the Oscar winning score (further proving that the Oscars almost literally mean nothing in terms of quality) wind up doing more harm than good to the film’s credibility. A synthesized score does little to create a sense of sympathy or foreboding. Perhaps effective at the time, it will not stand up to the test of time, and will only progressively show its age more and more.
What’s worst of all is the horribly racist portrayal of the Turks. This was, from what I’ve learned, one of the largest critical qualms about the film. Oliver Stone took huge liberties with the material from Hayes’ book, including the depiction of the prison guards. They’re loathsome pigs, as Hayes describes them just past the halfway mark. Their slime and deceit is amplified to an unnatural degree, making them horrifically unfair caricatures of a people otherwise considered wonderful and warm. My cousin lived in Turkey for over a year, and has spoken of his time there as some of the most memorable of his young life, and of its people as the warmest, most welcoming and fair-minded individuals he’d ever met.
I’d be forced to agree with the majority of the critical reviews of Midnight. The melodramatic attempts to make his situation seem worse in fact wind up hurting the integrity of the film. There’s something to be said for subtlety, and there’s a quality to the production value here that lacks that.
Randy Quaid is a blemish on the film. While he’s supposed to be playing a short-tempered man on the edge, more balls than brains, he winds up feeling like an over-acted bull in a China shop. His performance comes across as that of an actor who has no idea how to portray his subject. Instead of seeming like a short fuse, he’s just a big mess. Over the top from start to finish, his is my least favorite performance.
Brad Davis, our leading man Bill Hayes, at the beginning feels like he’s straight out of an after school special in the 80s. I don’t know how he manages it, but every look feels forced. As the film progresses, his campy performance does grow, if only slightly. He’s not terrific or impressive by any means, but he borders on convincing. By the films’ conclusion in the ward for the criminally insane, he’s fully committed to the part … pardon the pun. That in itself is comforting, considering the rest of his performance before he snaps felt just off all the time.
John Hurt is John hurt – resident expert on excellence in a performance. He’s the only actor in the film who manages to master the art of subtlety. He steals every scene he’s in, and had the only moment in the film that moved me to tear up. If only the other actors had taken their cue from him, perhaps the film would be better equipped to stand the test of time.
Alas, unfortunately, it does not. It has become dated. Its message is still clear, but due to fumbles in its production its impact will surely wane as time progresses.
This post was originally published on my tumblr on February 4, 2013.