Midnight Family: Protect Us from Each Other, by David Bax
Not unlike the struggling family at the center of another one of the year’s best films, Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, Midnight Family‘s Ochoa clan are not bad people. Perhaps they’re a little desensitized, with 17-year-old Juan casually describing dead bodies while chatting on the phone with his girlfriend, but they are only surviving in the ways our increasingly unequal world offers them, even if that sometimes means at the expense of others.
To make Midnight Family, director Luke Lorentzen climbed aboard the Ochoa’s privately owned and operated ambulance, in which they nightly patrol the streets of Mexico City, listening to police scanners and trying to be the first at every grisly scene to treat the wounded and dying, deliver them to a hospital and then ask them to pay up. With 9 million people living in the city and only 45 ambulances actually operated by government hospitals (some of the only background information we get in Lorentzen’s all killer, no filler film), ambulances like the Ochoas’ are common.
That means they are also all in competition with each other. When the scanner picks up a tantalizing accident, the urgency comes not from the desire to help the injured but to beat the other ambulances there. In a thrilling scene right out of an action movie, Lorentzen is standing in the street, filming Juan through the driver’s side window when one of these accidents comes across the radio waves. Juan sits up straight and Lorentzen rushes around the side and jumps in the van’s open back door just as it peels out. What follows is a real life car chase, as Juan repeatedly swaps places with a rival ambulance on the late night Mexico City streets, engines roaring and sirens blaring. It’s as thrilling a sequence as you’ll see in any other movie in theaters.
What this scene truly recalls, though, is the opening pages of Neal Stephenson’s post-cyberpunk classic novel Snow Crash, in which a pizza delivery driver races through the streets to get his cargo to the consumer in under 30 minutes. That novel is, among other things, a satire of libertarianism run amok and Midnight Family made me wonder how far along we are to realizing that very future. The hyper-privatization suggested by the ambulances of Mexico City are the result (and, for those like the Ochoas, the cause) of a cold, pragmatic, transactional view of the world. “If no one died, morticians wouldn’t eat,” is Juan’s rationalization of preying on the sick. And when people don’t want to pay, his offended retort is, “It’s like asking for free tacos at a taco stand.” Midnight Family shows us a world in which health care and food are just more commodities; in other words, our world.
Yet, Lorentzen also reminds us why laissez-faire, free market ideas like privatized ambulances don’t work. An unfair economic and class structure is already in place; those at the top aren’t going to cede their position, especially with no rules in place encouraging fairness. Capitalism is a competition and, where there is a winner, there must be a loser. Midnight Family is a bracing and undeniable display of a worldwide truism; the poor work the hardest and gain the least. In one stark illustration of this, the Ochoas finally earn some money and almost immediately have it extorted by the cops who tipped them off about the night’s casualties in the first place.
It’s probably for legal reasons that Lorentzen never shows us the faces of the Ochoas’ patients but it’s a wise move in other ways as well. For all its white-knuckle, adrenalized pleasures, Midnight Family is sobering and infuriating enough without having to contemplate the effect of these events on even more immediate victims.