It’s been way too long since we’ve gotten to see Angela Bettis covered in someone else’s blood. The rare actor capable of endowing homicide with the casualness (and passion) of a hobby, Bettis’ endearingly cracked turn in the titular role of 2002’s “May” — Lucky McKee’s modern fable about an introverted loner who quite literally makes a friend from the spare parts she collects from other people — minted her as an indie horror icon. In fact, Bettis was so indelible in the film that it was hard to notice when she fell off the map a bit during the years that followed; some performances lodge a shiv in your brain and leave it there like it always just happened. As a no-nonsense Arkansas ER nurse/black market kidney-dealer in Brea Grant’s raucous, sick, and maddeningly un-hyphenated screwball comedy “12 Hour Shift,” Bettis finally gets the material she needs to deliver another one.
Almost certainly the funniest movie about organ transportation since “Rat Race” (someone make a Letterboxd list), “12 Hour Shift” doesn’t allow for quite the same kind of bravura showcase that Bettis gave us in “May” — Grant’s film, while plenty deranged in its own right, is nevertheless grounded in reality — but it still depends on the actor’s genius for being loathsome and lovable at the same time. Bettis is Mandy, the most irritable nurse her little Arkansas hospital has ever seen. Maybe she was born that way, or maybe it’s the rails of coke she does in the bathroom before clocking in, but Mandy’s face is twisted into a semi-permanent scowl that just screams “don’t you fucking dare talk to me about the sheet cake in the break room when I’m on my smoke break in the parking lot.” At a time when essential workers are receiving an overdue portion of the respect they deserve, there’s something inherently funny about meeting one who doesn’t give a shit about your feelings.
But Mandy doesn’t live in our time; she’s stuck in the Y2K era, a magical epoch when the world was a bit pulpier, crime still required people to get their hands dirty, and an Arkansas hospital could descend into absolute bedlam one night without anyone being the wiser until the next morning. The longest shift of Mandy’s life begins when her ditzy blonde cousin rolls up to grab a fresh kidney and deliver it to the scary guys who are going to sell it across town; we don’t know it yet, but Regina (who an inspired Chloe Farnworth plays as a cross between Rollergirl and Hannibal Lecter) is a single-minded sociopath of the highest order, and one of the best movie villains in a year when all of the most frightening people have been on TV.
Regina doesn’t exactly have the acumen of a criminal mastermind — “Who knew we were into the same stuff!” she giggles to Mandy at one point, referring to the procurement and transport of stolen body parts — and she only seems further out of place after she accidentally drops the kidney behind a hospital vending machine and heads to the drop-off with a cooler full of soda cans. But what she lacks in focus, she makes up for in her unflinching willingness to murder anyone in her way. When the smugglers demand that she bring them a functioning kidney ASAP, Regina heads back to the hospital, disguises herself as a nurse, and determines to make the first patient she finds into a non-consensual organ donor. That leaves poor Mandy to do her rounds, fix her cousin’s mistake, and keep as many people alive as people. It’s going to be a bumpy night, and by the time it’s over Regina won’t be the only serial killer stalking the halls.
If Bettis and the bloodshed that’s often associated with her might have you primed for a movie that more comfortably fits into the “horror” category, Grant — directing her first feature since 2013’s “Best Friends Forever” — has something a little kookier in mind. Our first clue to expect the unexpected comes from Matt Glass’ melodramatic score, which takes all the strings from last year’s “Us” and playfully knots them together into a bouncy ball that Grant can hurl down the hospital corridors alongside her characters. The music gives us permission to laugh even when the gore makes us flinch (it turns out that drinking bleach isn’t great for your throat), and it adds a chaotic sense of life to a set that never shies away from the pallid sterility of an underfunded American emergency room. Glass also served as the film’s cinematographer, and he lights this pitch-black comedy so that viewers start to feel like they can see in the dark.
And it’s a good thing that Grant had such talented people behind the camera, because she was trying to shoot the moon on a shoestring with this one. Writing with the go-for-broke energy of someone who isn’t just trying to parlay their script into a studio gig, and directing with the confidence of someone who’s too self-possessed to work for a studio anyway, Grant orchestrates “12 Hour Shift” like nobody told her that a high six-figure budget (I’m guessing) wasn’t enough to make a ’90s period movie that feels like it could’ve been made back then — a grindhouse comedy that splits the difference between “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and “Bringing Out the Dead” while largely confining itself to a single location.
Empowered by her collaborators and bolstered by her vision, Grant sutures together a blood-stained romp where anything can happen next, and even the most unexpected sequences feel like they make sense in this world. “12 Hour Shift” doesn’t juggle a variety of different tones so much as it forges a bonkers one of its own and sticks to it all the way through, so that even when the plot runs itself ragged towards the end, the movie has more than enough energy to push itself over the finish line and keep striving for new highs until it gets there.
A mid-movie singalong à la “Magnolia” is both a wildly enjoyable highlight, and the first of several moments down the home stretch that hint — if sometimes to their detriment — at what Grant could be capable of with more resources and a larger cast. But it’s not like the cast she’s got lets her down. Farnworth is a demented force of nature whose performance only gets funnier as the body count grows, Nikea Gamby-Turner keeps things grounded as a cool-headed nurse who serves as Mandy’s anchor to the real world, and producer David Arquette — underused as a character who’s teased for an hour and then doesn’t get to do all that much when he finally enters the fray — is nevertheless able to remind people how much personality he can add to a movie.
But this is Bettis’ show, and — almost 20 years after “May” — she gives an encore performance that was unambiguously worth the wait. For all of her sharp edges, Mandy is the straight woman here; she’s the one trying to keep things from spinning out of control and restore whatever crooked order was there in the first place, but Bettis doesn’t take that as an excuse to be functional. She cuts through every scene with the queasy determination of a rusty scalpel, and it isn’t long before you can see long years of wounded self-preservation start to splotch all over Mandy’s scrubs.
Mandy isn’t much of a hero, and Grant’s script only hints at a sordid past that’s never as fleshed out as it needed to be for “12 Hour Shift” to earn the emotional undertow of its ending, but Bettis’ clenched face helps fill in the rest. Even when she’s covering up a murder, you just can’t help but wish that Mandy would catch a break. And not just the kind of break that allows for a quick smoke in the parking lot, but one that might allow her to enjoy a less desperate existence. It’s hard to say if Grant’s film offers any real “there” there by the time Mandy is finally able to clock out in the morning, but there’s a wounding force to the punchline that she has to do it all over again the next night, and that tomorrow might be even harder to survive than yesterday.
Magnolia Pictures and Magnet Releasing will release “12 Hour Shift” on VOD and in select drive-in theaters on Friday, October 2.