Written by William Drew
Brea Grant’s second feature, 12 Hour Shift, was slated for a world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. The festival was cancelled and it’s now being released, like everything, to stream on your TV.
Seeing it through the other side of the prism of everything that’s happened in the last year, it was difficult not to think about how our image of healthcare workers has changed. Watching a film that portrays nurses as self-serving and murderous criminals, only very reluctantly heroic, feels almost blasphemous. This must be what right wingers feel when they see films criticising the military. It makes you realise quite how different the world of 2019 was.
Mandy (Angela Bettis) is a nurse at a busy and chaotic hospital. There’s a very deliberate choice from the beginning to not make her likeable. She’s not warm, she’s not maternal or any of the other expectations our society might have from a woman in a care role. She’s exhausted and jaded and pissed off. Whether her pharmaceutical drug habit is the cause of her outlook or the only way she can possibly get through the hellish reality of her work-life is left as a chicken and egg type question. Knowing that her role is going to make the audience instantly sympathetic towards her, Grant’s script starts to prod at the limits of that sympathy from the outset. The drugs are stolen from the hospital, of course – perhaps less morally problematic for a US audience because it has a different meaning to the idea of stealing from a national healthcare system – but nevertheless at the limit of what we might condone.
Mandy’s indiscretions don’t stop there though. She’s also harvesting organs from patients. This involves her actually murdering people, presumably a lot of people as the implication is that this is an ongoing arrangement. She uses bleach to encourage her patients to shuffle off their mortal coil. The implication is that she is only doing this with the already terminally ill, though that is slightly called into question when she encourages the daughter of a relatively sprightly lady with dementia to go home and get some rest as her mother will be in good hands….
As you start to see the world through Mandy’s eyes, you realise that, to her, the patients in the hospital are products. She gets no pleasure from killing them – she doesn’t seem to get any pleasure from anything at all – it is simply something she has convinced herself she must do. In a horrific vision of late capitalism, she and her accomplice – the hospital receptionist – have normalised this to such an extent in their own minds that they have stopped seeing themselves as murderers. There’s a mischievous irony in the decision to have them meet in the hospital chapel to plan these activities.
If Mandy’s evil is of the ordered, mundane variety, her cousin (by marriage) Regina is very much in the realm of chaos. Regina (Chloe Famworth) acts as a go-between in the organ harvesting operation. Her job consists of picking up the organs from Mandy, paying her and then transporting said organs directly to the seedy biker types who then sell them on the black market. It’s Regina’s failure to complete this apparently simple operation that unleashes the action of the film. Though her methods differ from Mandy’s, her desperation leads her to view the world in a very similar way: human beings seen as a resource to be killed and harvested for profit.
12 Hour Shift presents a particularly bleak worldview. One reading is that we’re being presented with a satire of modern America under late capitalism as epitomised by the healthcare system. In the grotesque events and the characters’ total lack of any kind of moral grounding, this satirical edge feels blunted and ill-defined, ceding space to bloody knockabout comedy. Taken as a dark comedy, I felt the lack of relatable characters made it difficult to engage with as I would have liked. Mandy does ultimately take some heroic actions because she is forced to do so and, while there’s a certain realism in this, the whole conception of her character seems based around her not being likeable or charming or any of the things female protagonists are so often expected to be, which is admirable intellectually and politically but does act as a certain barrier to a particular kind of engagement.
None of this is to take away from what is a highly assured piece of film-making, with excellent unhinged performances. A little like watching a Nick Cage movie where he appears to be in a different film to everyone else, the heightened turns by Famworth and David Arquette (also producing) among others are in stark contrast to Bettis as the misanthropic Mandy and there’s definitely a particularly kind of enjoyment to be had in that. Some people will no doubt be able to let themselves be swept up in the breakneck bloody comedy of it all but I personally found the bleakness of its vision to be too untempered by the drawing of any connection between the world it was presenting and our own, for everything they have in common.
Rating: 3 out 5