SLFS Review – 23 MINUTES TO SUNRISE
23 MINUTES TO SUNRISE is a small scale drama about a group of people gathered one night in an out-of-the-way 24-hour diner. It’s a well-made film hampered by a half-baked script and poorly handled third act left bank into the supernatural but it’s partially redeemed by a sardonic performance from the terrific Eric Roberts. The action all takes place in Illinois (it was filmed in Sauget), where eight people find themselves the only wee-hour inhabitants of the all-night Sunrise Diner. Sheila is a small town waitress trapped in an abusive marriage attracted to the younger black fry cook Eddie (Dingani Beza). Rachel and Ted, an unhappy 50-ish couple (Nia Peeples and Bob Zany) agonize over their failing marriage. Hair-trigger criminal Donny (Tom Sandoval) and his reluctant girlfriend Grace (Kristen Doute) are hiding out after a botched robbery leads to a killing, needing to pull off one last score so they can head to Vegas. To these stock characters the film adds its two more curious ones in the form of a haunted young woman named Hannah (Haley Busch) and her mysterious older companion Daniel (Eric Roberts), a pair who talk in puzzles, hinting at the unearthly twists to come.
I will say 23 MINUTES TO SUNRISE does not go where I expected it to. I was braced for a DESPERATE HOURS-style hostage drama. It’s a basic movie situation and all the elements were in place. I assumed the desperate Donny and Grace would be trapped and surrounded. They have hostages. During a long and exhausting night, the tension would build while these two consider their options, wreaking psychological and physical damage on the others as the cops and media close in. But at around the one hour mark, right about when Donny inevitably pulls his pistol, all convention is thrown out the window and 23 MINUTES TO SUNRISE veers off into a surprising direction, one involving immortality and the supernatural. Unfortunately it doesn’t really work.
23 MINUTES TO SUNRISE does not feature anything new or startling, but it’s competently constructed, and, despite a stale patch in the middle, maintains a certain degree of tension and interest. The film’s problem, and it’s a big one, is the script by Jay Kanzler and Patrick Pinktson. It seems like a first draft, with these eight characters never evolving beyond thinly drawn types acting out drama that sounds as if it came from an earnest writer’s notebook. It’s alternately stilted and cryptic, lacking humor or irony. The script needed to be massaged, its concepts expanded on. There’s the germ of a good idea floating around in it somewhere, but once it takes its celestial twist, it so obviously doesn’t know where to go with it that it peters out a few minutes later (it only runs 75 minutes). Eddie is introduced as the film’s narrator, complete with rambling voice-over ruminations about God and the meaning of life, but the story is not told through his eyes any more than anyone else’s and that device is dropped about halfway through. Director Kanzler does what he can with the material, but it never achieves momentum. He fails to wind the tension, so the drama inside the diner is largely stillborn despite the actors’ best efforts. Kanzler relies far too heavily on moody compositions and close-ups to fill the space where motivation and character-building ought to be. 23 MINUTES TO SUNRISE is extremely well produced and photographed and its tech credits are top-notch, but it’s all style and little substance and there’s not much suspense for a production that should be crackling with it.
The core of 23 MINUTES TO SUNRISE is atmosphere and dialogue and most of the film involves interaction amongst these four couples. The characters do a lot of talking and, although few of their lines are memorable, some of what they say rings true because the actors are much more talented than they need to be for these one-dimensional characters. Nia PeeplesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ bitterness is affecting and Bob Zany, a comedian who was the subject of Kanzler’s documentary film CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR, is excellent in a serious sad-sack role. But Kanzler’s ace-in-the-hole, the thing that most makes 23 MINUTES TO SUNRISE watchable, is Eric Roberts, the Oscar-nominated actor who’s made a career of playing these types of sinister, sleazy creatures. There is nothing redeemable about Daniel, who may or may not be the specter of death itself but Roberts has fun with it and embraces the role as only he can. When he lights up and Sheila points out the ‘No Smoking’ sign, he responds “I thought that just meant for tourists”. It’s not a particularly well-written line, but Roberts delivers it like it is, and manages to transcend the material with his sheer Eric Roberts-ness. Even the viewer who recognizes 23 MINUTES TO SUNRISE’s flaws is still likely to be intrigued and captivated by the increasingly- desperate proceedings and may want to see where it goes. A mixed bag.