12 Hour Shift

(Brea Grant, USA, 2020)


It’s less a matter of time – those constrictive deadlines so hailed by scriptwriting advice manuals – and more a matter of space (and hence of the carving out of space by mise en scène and editing). Or rather, how the closing noose of time gets mapped onto, saturates, a passing succession of repeated and interrelated spaces: the rooms and zones (inside/outside) of a building, or a block, or a whole city.

That principle holds as much for Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975) or Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) as for all the action-thrillers about panic rooms, homes under siege, occupied shopping malls or menaced skyscrapers. I believe my first lesson in all that arrived early, when I was 16, watching the wonderful garage-door denouement of Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot (1976).

In director-writer Brea Grant’s absorbing 12 Hour Shift (her second film after Best Friends Forever [2013]), the place in question is a hospital in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Boring, relentless regularity of a shitty job: nothing ever really shifts in the shift of nurse Mandy (the extraordinary Angela Bettis, too little used in cinema). Until it does. That thankless repetition of a daily grind counts in the overall temporal-spatial structure, too: think of Philip Brophy’s Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat (1988), or Jeanne D. again, patron saint of the killer-housewife.

There’s a guy on dialysis in the machine room; patients who are out cold in their beds; an old lady who’s out of her mind. Mandy does her rounds. And she also has a little side-business: secretly selling the human organs that are lifted from recently expired corpses. Those items go to an underground surgery business elsewhere, that we glimpse only in one scene. The link between the two spaces/places is Regina (Chloe Farnworth, slightly overdoing the bimbo stereotype), who tends to lose stuff along the way. Leading her to some rash, impulsive, desperate acts. And where the organ exchange happens is by the soda machine outside the hospital – a site that, through repetition and variation (not all of which, cleverly, is actually shown on-screen), achieves particular prominence in 12 Hour Shift.

It’s low-budget Tarantino-Avary-Roth-Rodriguez territory – fleeting but gruesome syringes in eyeballs, bleach oozing out of necks, everybody getting hideously whacked in the head with metal trays or other available heavy objects – but closer to the dark fun of Avary’s little-seen, Crispin Glover-starring Lucky Day (2019) than Tarantino’s geographically sprawling canvases. The endlessly re-mapped space of corridors, rooms, exits (front and back), reception desk and waiting room holds it all together. The inevitably tricky (and bloody) plot complications, encounters and reprises are just the icing on that cake.

Themes are lightly sprinkled around – body boundaries, kinship (“That’s not how family works”), exploitative work (and how to exploit it, in turn), ethics of survival and murder. It’s a common feature of films of this type to want to spell everything out and underline it, ticking the boxes of significant content on the way to the next spectacular spillage of blood & guts. But the heart of this film is not located in its thematic patterning.

It’s a film about rising frustration, stress, tiredness – a little in the vein of another medical drama, Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead (1999). But give me Bettis over Nicholas Cage, any lucky day. An actor with superb control, she infuses the mounting system of 12 Hour Shift with a fabulously slow-burnt, pissed-off vibe. The everyday epilogue of her car snooze between work phases is classic. Nikea Gamby-Turner as receptionist (and Mandy’s criminal accomplice) Karen is also good value.

Bettis and Grant belong to an intriguing network of filmmakers in various, ever-shifting arrangements of role, function and collaboration. Grant has since made Torn Hearts (2022), and has acted in features for Natasha Kermani (Lucky, 2020) and Jill Gevargizian (the disappointing feature-length expansion of The Stylist [2020]). Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson are probably the best-known members of this loose group, but (apart from Bettis herself, who directed Roman in 2006) there’s also, connected to 12 Hour Shift, Matt Glass (he handles editing, cinematography, plus the excellently propulsive opera-singers-over-beats score here) and co-producer Jordan Wayne Long – who together have since directed Ghosts of the Ozarks (2021). Actor-producer David Arquette is another recurring member of the troupe. In early, pre-Star Wars/Knives Out days, Rian Johnson was also involved in their projects, including editing on Roman (his short Evil Demon Golf Ball from Hell!!! [1997], featuring McKee & Sivertson, can be found on the Looper [2012] DVD).

Once you begin cross-referencing the IMDb credits of all these people, you’re stuck online for an eternity. Perhaps someone somewhere has already nerdily mapped the whole terrain for us; I’m not sure. Best to go looking by yourself; there are things worth discovering in this ensemble of talents.

© Adrian Martin 13 August 2023

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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