Review – Midnight Special

Poster for 2016 sci-fi drama Midnight Special

Genre: Sci-Fi
Certificate: 12
UK Release Date: 8th April 2016
Runtime: 112 minutes
Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher, Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver, Sam Shepard
Synopsis: A father takes his son, who has special powers, from the clutches of a religious cult and, pursued by the government, takes him to a location that is said to hold great significance.

 

 

Jeff Nichols has carved out a real niche for himself as an indie director who makes films about outsiders… usually played by Michael Shannon. His latest is something a little different – a head-scratcher of a sci-fi that is clearly influenced by the early work of Steven Spielberg. Michael Shannon is present and correct, of course, but this is otherwise a gentle subversion of Nichols’ oeuvre to date and a truly unusual beast. It’s full of ideas and glimpses of nuance, but it doesn’t all hang together when the credits roll.

Roy (Shannon) has fled a religious cult that has taken to seeing his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) as a deity, due to his unusual powers. With his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) in the driver’s seat, Roy embarks on a journey across America to get Alton to a place that appears to hold great significance. Along the way, they pick up Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) and must evade capture from the government, who are tracking Alton with the help of NSA agent Paul (Adam Driver).

Midnight Special is a film that never has an issue with frustrating its audience. It sets itself out as being predominantly a mystery narrative, driven by what was being withheld from viewers by the characters. The film is in no hurry to provide an explanation for Alton’s powers, or even a description of what they are. It’s also keen not to tell us where the characters are going, why they are going there or how they even know that that’s where they need to go. On paper, this seems like the setup for an interesting story. However, in practice, the result is a film that hands the audience a hammer and a couple of bricks and is then surprised when they can’t build a house.

I’ll always worry about you, Alton. I like worrying about you.

That’s not to say that Jeff Nichols is entirely unable to provoke intrigue. Midnight Special, for a large portion of its running time, teases out elements of its story and characters in genuinely exciting fashion. It isn’t until the third act gears creak into motion that the disappointment sets in, when it becomes clear that Nichols has no desire to provide a resolution befitting of the enticing storyline he has built. In fact, Midnight Special culminates in an effects-driven sequence that evoked memories of one of last year’s worst sci-fi efforts rather than the interesting resolution promised by the foundations.

The performances are very strong, with Michael Shannon excellent in an unusually subdued role. His quiet, understated turn in Midnight Special is a million miles from the bombastic menace of his General Zod in Man of Steel. His relationship with Joel Edgerton, seemingly built on mutual respect and a devoted belief in Alton’s importance, is an interesting one, but is again a victim of the film’s reluctance to provide anything approaching narrative closure.

That same mystery leaves the film’s central child actor, Jaeden Lieberher, with almost nothing to do. He spends most of the film silently positioned at the side of the frame wearing dark glasses. The film does not give the audience a chance to understand Alton or identify with him and it is therefore difficult to muster up much emotional investment in whether he is able to successfully reach his destination. The same is true of his relationship with his mother, given the real lack of screen time given to Kirsten Dunst, in an under-developed role. Far more time is given to Adam Driver’s bland government operative, who has several moments in which he figures out key plot developments but doesn’t then have the good courtesy to pass on that information through exposition.

People die every day believing in things.

There’s plenty to be said for a film that doesn’t spoonfeed every tiny facet of its storytelling and character beats to the audience. However, Midnight Special emerges as an utterly opaque piece of work that refuses to yield any of its secrets. For all of its intrigue and sense of something building beneath the surface, it concludes in an enormous anti-climax that leaves the film as something of a missed opportunity. Jeff Nichols is a talented filmmaker, but his style meshes awkwardly with the sci-fi setting and never delivers the spectacle it initially promises.

 

Pop or Poop?

Rating: Poop!

Despite very strong performances from a talented and game cast, Midnight Special is ultimately a disappointing movie that never brings about the grandiose wonder that it seems to want to invoke. Jeff Nichols has produced his first major misstep with a film that withholds too much and plays its cards just a little too close to its chest.

 

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