Midnight Special [2016]

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

Following a series of cryptic and prophetic messages, a Christian cult and the FBI pursue a runaway father (Shannon) and his child (Lieberher), the latter of which possess extraordinary abilities and may hold the key to humanity’s future.

Director: Jeff Nichols

Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver and Jaeden Lieberher.

After reading the above blurb, it would be very easy for people to enter the cinema expecting a high concept, high octane thriller which draws on elements from the current wave of popular superhero movies. And whilst this is true in case of the latter (in part), it is not the case of the former, for Midnight Special is a movie which has a more nuanced and alternative approach, incorporating large elements of science fiction and family drama rather than citywide destruction and exposition-heavy dialogue.

Indeed, it hews closer to the back catalogue of Steven Speilberg, with its softly precocious child in Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), fantastical elements and poignant moments of character interaction with very little dialogue.

This isn’t to say that it doesn’t have gripping sections. Featuring an intriguing opening in media res and various tense incidents that are accompanied by a tense, pulsating soundtrack and set in an assorted range of vehicles which are commandeered by Roy (Shannon) and his brood, there are thrilling moments in the movie.

If the above description seems vague or noncommittal in referencing plot points, it is because the plot itself is minimalist, so the more that this review alludes to certain sections, the more it will dilute them for viewers who are yet to see it.

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Jeff Nichols’s approach is mainly slow and meditative for the majority of the film and he only (partially) relents in his ambiguity when absolutely necessary. Certainly, the execution of the story will not be to the tastes of many, due to Nichols’s reticence for definitive answers, however this is rewarding in many ways, since it keeps us guessing as to whether everything and everyone is as they seem. In spite of this, Midnight Special often errs towards generating frustration rather than intrigue.

Indeed, it concerns the exploration of parent/child relationships, as well as our reactions to powerful beings (amongst other themes); with the FBI and the Christian cult, there is room for a juicy dissection of these ideas, yet because the film gives relatively little screen time to either party, the two organisations with their beliefs and motives feel underdeveloped.

Additionally, due to this rigid air of mystery, these undertones remain too intangible and therefore too distant to deliver any impact, and as a result, the movie skirts around its own meaty subtext without really sinking its teeth into it.

Like the story, the actors are consistently accomplished yet they too feel constrained. Michael Shannon carries the film, regularly displaying his attitudes just through his eyes alone, accompanied by Joel Edgerton who offers a reassuringly stilled yet snarky presence.

Accompanying them is Kirsten Dunst in the slighter role as Alton’s estranged mother, who is given very little to work with and yet she still delivers some needed depth to the part, as does Adam Driver in a subtly quirky performance as the curious FBI Agent Paul Sevier.

The movie is also assisted by some fabulous cinematography, featuring radiant views of America’s southern states, particularly in the awe-inspiring climax.

It will divide opinion, but Midnight Special has lofty aspirations, and it soars to considerable heights due to the talent and graft of its cast and director, but because of its evasiveness and lack of definition, it can’t quite land as firmly as it should.

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