Shane Paul McGhie, left, and Richard Jenkins in “The Last Shift.” Courtesy of Visit Films

Richard Jenkins is always money in the bank for whoever casts him, because Richard Jenkins brings the most valuable asset, believability, to any story.

I think we believed that the fish monster in Guillermo del Toro’s “Shape of Water” was real because Richard Jenkins was in it.

Jenkins has always shared the screen with the central players and then slowly drew the camera away from them to his character.

In “The Last Shift,” Jenkins is simply Stanley, a 70-something human who grew up in the off-the-track town of Albion, Michigan, a town whose streets and boarded-up businesses seem to have been designed by painter Edward Hopper, and where folks went to sleep at night to the distant whistles of the Amtrak trains that never stopped there.

Stanley probably delivered newspapers here in Albion, a town that went to sleep in the Great Recession and forgot to set the alarm.

He graduated from high school and got the job he loved most, flipping burgers at Oscar’s Fish and Chicken Cafe, a side-street fast-food joint where only a couple of customers come at night, and where he has worked his way up to $13 an hour.

Here, nobody will notice his asthma or his bad knees. He credits his “success” in life to his mother and probably says, “Without her, I wouldn’t be where I am.”

Where he is, is in a soft fog of denial answering to the real manager, “Chaz” (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a big, gentle woman who owns the franchise and keeps cash in a new safe.

And that is where we find him tonight, the late night manager wearing the logo T-shirt that looks like he sleeps, shops and goes to church in it.

Stanley has found something solid to stand on, to believe in. He has even created a special sandwich, the “Stanwich.”

One day, a young man, fresh out of county jail where he was locked up for some minor mistake, is hired to assist him on the end of day shift.

This will be Jevon (Shane Paul McGhie), a bright but lost young Black man with a girlfriend and a baby he hadn’t planned on. This will be Jevon’s parole officer’s choice for Jevon, to be trained to replace Stanley, who is about to move to Florida to take care of his mother, who, we learn, has forgotten who he is.

Stanley has a best friend, an out-of-work factory worker and good old boy who only shaves for his driving license picture. This will be Don (Ed O’Neill).

Tossed in, with little explanation, is a secret shared by Don and Stanley.

Back in high school, a Black classmate was beaten to death. They witnessed it, but fear silenced them, and they provided no testimony.

When hard times came to Albion, they came harder for Stanley. His brother comes to the checkout window late at night for a free “Stanwich” and shake, and to rag him.

But now it’s almost time for Stanley to train Jevon so he can retire to Florida.

Jevon’s character comes into focus slowly with bits and pieces of his life. He was once a small town newspaper columnist with dreams of being a serious writer.

Jevon uses words and phrases that make Stanley wince, but he comes to admire him. They spend the chilly slow nights playing shuffle board with brooms and frozen chicken patties.

But into this shabby late night diner, a cartoonish version of painter Hopper’s famous “Nighthawks,” reality seeps into Stanley’s grease-stained heart, bringing, as he fingers the night’s cash take before opening the safe, whispers of regret.

We can see now that even a man grown satisfied with nothing has a breaking point. Eyes will point at Jevon. What comes of all this brings little satisfaction to us, and in the end, we have only Richard Jenkins’ perfectly honed performance to find comfort with.

Andrew Cohn’s slow, unsteady film has, like Albion itself, little excitement and a barely discernible heart beat, but every moment is worth watching because Richard Jenkins is in it.

 

J.P. Devine, of Waterville, is a former stage and screen actor.

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