The Minute You Wake Up Dead is an American neo-noir directed by Michael Mailer (Blind), starring Cole Hauser (Olympus Has Fallen), Jaimie Alexander (Thor), and Morgan Freeman (Invictus).
Cole Hauser plays Jason, a wealthy stockbroker in a small Mississippi town who has advised many of the locals to buy into a flagging company’s stock in advance of an upcoming merger. When the deal falls through, and a local man is murdered Jason’s life comes up for scrutiny when Freeman’s Sherrif Fowler decides the murderer may have been looking for him, and Jason’s lover Delaine (Alexander) may or may not be as innocent as she seems. A series of betrayals and counter betrayals ensue, and Fowler intones gravely over the nature of Man set against the Delta scenery.
The Minute You Wake Up Dead seems at first blush to have everything this reviewer looks for in a film: a complicated web of crime and deceit, some Southern Gothic flavor, and the film noir cynicism for the wealthy, the powerful, and the respectable.
It opens with a Bible quote, and an in medias res act of violence. I was settled into my chair, eyes wide, ready to worship at the altar of the Coens, James M. Cain, and Cormac McCarthy. This was going to be one to remember.
Unfortunately the engine is missing a spark plug somewhere.
Start with the cast: Hauser is miscast as the alternately slimy and vulnerable Jason, a financier who should be both easy to hate as he calmly tells poor folks that their life savings are gone at his advice, and pulling us in against our will as he finds himself staring down the barrel of sudden death from, at first anonymous and later close-to-home sources.
Alexander is the film’s femme fatale and she’s certainly very beautiful but I never got the energy from her the role requires. There’s nothing about her performance that makes me believe men would kill and die for her, and there’s none of the desperate energy of someone like Angelica Huston in The Grifters where you fully believe you’re dealing with a person who would do literally anything to survive.
Perhaps the most damning criticism is how bored Morgan Freeman seems here. His role on the page feels like a kindred spirit to Tommy Lee Jones’ inspired 2008 turn in No Country For Old Men, but where Jones’ hangdog stoicism masked a deep sensitivity to the nature of the world and a fear of being caught up in its indifferent buffet of violence, Freeman just feels like he’s cashing in on a career’s worth of gravitas. It feels like a shallower, sanitized, version of a better performance just as the film itself feels like a half-cocked invocation to the noirs of the past. Mailer has his flyby establishing shots of the desolate Southern vista but they feel like pale imitations of Cary Fukayama’s revelatory first season of True Detective.
Noir isn’t just the old moves: the devil is in the details. I can never remember the labyrinth of twists in The Big Sleep, but I’ll never forget the way Joel Cairo mouths his cane, the way Marge Gunderson snuggles up to her husband under a portrait of mallards, the way Burt Lancaster’s face sets as he accepts death in The Killers, or the way Matthew McConaughey eyes bulged after ripping a line undercover. The ingredients were there for a Southern stew of greed and murder but the details, the contradictions, the texture, is the spice that makes the chili worth eating in the first place.
Mailer has the best of intentions and it’s very true that we need more films like this being made, but you can ask any noir hero and they’ll tell you– the best of intentions is no guarantee of success.
** 1/2 out of *****
* * * * *
Produced by Andrew Stevens
Written by Timothy Holland Michael Mailer
Directed by Michael Mailer
Starring Cole Hauser, Morgan Freeman, Jaimie Alexander