Midnight Special Review

Posted: August 8, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

midnight-special-posterWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

The other day I was thinking about who the great North American directors to emerge in the last ten-to-fifteen years are and the answers were somewhat disappointing. Most of this continent’s best films this decade have come from filmmaking veterans like David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Richard Linklater, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson, along with old masters like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. Still, a few young filmmakers have shown a lot of promise like Denis Villeneuve, Damien Chazelle, Ava DuVernay, Jennifer Kent, Ryan Coogler, and Robert Eggers. Among these directors is Jeff Nichols, who already has a handful of really solid efforts like Mud and especially Take Shelter. I don’t think Nichols has made a truly great film yet, but I think he has one in him and 2016 might be the year we finally see it, as he has both the high concept science fiction film Midnight Special and the historical drama/romance Loving. Today we’re looking at the former.

The film opens seemingly in the middle of the story as we learn young Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) has been kidnapped by his biological father (Michael Shannon) and his friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Alton does not seem to be in distress however, in fact the two men are acting more as protectors than captors. Meanwhile, the U.S. government are trying to track down Alton as the boy possess some unexplainable powers which allow him some form of psychic communication and also force a strange white light to emit from his eyes. A key member of the search is scientist Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) whose goals seem a bit nobler than the rest of the G-men in pursuit.

Midnight Special can be readily compared to Nichol’s aforementioned Take Shelter in that both are low-key genre films which use a high concept to explore a family. The main difference being Take Shelter was about a family being strained, whereas Midnight Special is about a family coming together. Nichols is very good at creating a sense of family on screen. The bond between father and son is tangible and this also true of mother and son when Alton’s mother (Kirsten Dunst) enters the picture. In fact generally speaking there is a good sense of history between a lot of the characters and all of the relationships feel authentic. The problem is the strong sense of family is really the only point of substance the story has. Though the plot does start in an interesting way it ultimately doesn’t go anywhere and the film’s revelations are not totally satisfying. All the film really offers is the committed bonds of family and specifically how far a parent will go for their child. This brings me back to Take Shelter, which offered a much more nuanced and complex familial dynamic while also providing a rich character study.

These criticisms are not to suggest Nichols has lost his touch as a filmmaker because he remains as capable as ever. Nichols’ reserved style is utilized very well and he manages to make the film feel both observational and emotional. There is a matter-of-fact bluntness to a lot of the shots and Nichols avoids sensationalism, but there is an underlying passion to the work. In this regard, credit is due to Nichols returning composer David Wingo whose music suits that sort of tone perfectly. The score certainly has a noticeable and unique presence, but it is used sparingly and does not dominate any scenes. Nichols also gets a bunch of nicely understated performances from his cast. Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, and Adam Driver are all really good here despite not having too much to work with on the page. Jaeden Lieberher is perhaps less impressive, in part because he almost serves as the McGuffin than a full on character, but Lieberher works fine in the role. Also worth noting are the special effects, which are good quite by the standards of a low-budget film like this and they serve the story well.

If there’s one thing that Nichols drops the ball on as a director it’s making memorable individual scenes. Not that any of the scenes here are straight up bad, there just isn’t much in the way of really memorable moments. The best ones I can think of are Alton’s walk in the sunlight and a surprise ambush in the third act. The former is just a powerful little moment which makes good use of visual effects and the latter is really well-staged and appropriately brief. The rest of the scenes though, while typically well crafted, don’t leave much impression. Again, I can’t help but think of Take Shelter, which had several amazing nightmare sequences, Michael Shannon’s break down in the dining hall, and the prolonged stay in the shelter. Mud also had some memorable stuff, like Elis’ confrontation with the older student or Mud’s desperate effort to bring the boy to a hospital. I just don’t know if Midnight Special offers anything that will stick with me as well as those scenes. I don’t necessarily think judging a movie on a scene to scene basis is always the best approach, but given that the story ultimately goes nowhere, a few more memorable moments would have done a lot to elevate the film.

Midnight Special is the kind of film I almost feel bad about being so lukewarm on because it seems to offer a lot of what I want out of my genre movies. It treats its audience seriously, does not dip into condescending over explanation or sensationalism, takes influence from previous works without indulging in severe referencing, and is made with care and craft by someone who genuinely cares about what he’s making. Also, while the film does have elements of violence, it’s refreshing to see a science-fiction movie that doesn’t feel the need to drop its ideas in favour of becoming a full on action movie. But all of that can’t get around the fact that ultimately Midnight Special is something of an empty work which offers very little of substance. I was certainly interested in the film while it was on, but it didn’t leave much of an impression when it ended. This is probably still worthy of a watch purely for the strong direction, the score, and the performances, but Midnight Special is more of a step backward for Jeff Nichols than a step forward.

C+

Comments
  1. Very fine review. I felt the same way about the film’s revelations are not totally satisfying. I do enjoy the performances, a solid cast, yet I wish the story had given them more to do. I also mentioned in my review about my lukewarm reaction, I think were pretty much on the same page with Midnight Special.

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