6.5 out of 10
Michael Shannon as Roy
Directed by Jeff Nichols
Midnight Special Review:
Jeff Nichols is the genre film-maker genre fans long for, a writer-director with as sharp an ear for dialogue and mood as an eye for interesting visuals and the ability to spin complicated stories which remain firmly rooted in character. These kinds of filmmakers do not come along often and it’s becoming even rarer to see them handed the reins of a studio film. And the results when it does happen are mixed; more than one director has testified to the fact that greater resources bring more oversight and less freedom to experiment. This isn’t a surprise as experiments by their nature tend to fail more often than they succeed, but they are also where the greatest magic happens and suppressing that can and does lower the bar for achievement. It’s a reality keenly felt in Nichols latest film, Midnight Special, his first studio film and the most plot-focused yet, which emerges as fast-paced and frequently enthralling but also unfortunately shallow.
Beginning, as more than a few of Nichols films have, on a southern back road, Midnight Special catches up with a fleeing automobile whose occupants – Roy (Shannon) and Lucas (Edgerton) – look like they could be refugees from a Flannery O’Connor story of unlucky bank-robbers. What they actually are is the rescuers of a precocious young boy (Lieberher) with supernatural gifts which have made him the focus of a manhunt by both the federal government and the religious cult which holds him up as a messiah. Spouting out map coordinates and blowing up satellites with his mind, young Alton leads his would-be saviors across the back roads of the American south to a fateful location which will hopefully save from all time from the people who want to use him.
If it sounds something like a high-falootin’ version of Escape to Witch Mountain, it sort of is but as with most Nichols films, an overview of the plot doesn’t do justice to the experience of the movie even in a more traditional adventure thriller. Focusing in on the Roy and Alton’s father-son relationship, the film looks slyly at one each requires of the other and to an extent the price required to provide what the other needs. It’s a universally understood dynamic made overt when aliens start coming for your child. Shannon, Nichols go-to leading man, is excellent in making the overt covert again, piling all the joy and fear and pain of fatherhood into knowing looks and subtitle facial tics and refusing to overact even when his son explodes into a beam of light.
It’s a feeling Midnight Special could honestly use more of. For all of Nichols’ skill as a writer of characters, he often seems overwhelmed by his own sprawling plot. From the LDS-ish cult Alton is rescued from, and who will do what they must to get him back, to the more typical techno-thriller moments when it switches to the FBI and NSA trying to figure out what is going on (personified by Star Wars’ Adam Driver as ’90s-era Jeff Goldblum) it continually drifts away from its core. Nichols’ ear for character is visible in each of these elements providing great moments like a pair of cult hit men who sit and ponder about how they ended up at the point of life where they were and why they have been asked to do what they’ve been asked to do. But it’s difficult not to feel like we’re paying attention to the wrong part of the film.
It also, for all of its character juggling, is a very masculine affair. While the plight of Alton’s mother (Dunst) and how that fits in with the strange life these people have been cast into is undeniably part of the story, she doesn’t arrive until late and is left frequently a spectator while Roy and Lucas (a criminally-underused Edgerton) do what they must. The greater problem is that these kinds of films require a strong climax to be more than just a series of events and the lighter character work makes that harder to reach. Midnight Special sort of splits the difference, finally running out of steam and resorting to the genre standard of having characters stand around and stare at visual effects with varying degrees of emotional attachment for the audience. Still, for whatever weaknesses Midnight Special does have – and it is one of Nichols’ weaker films to date – what attention it does pay to character and mood raises it above much of its kindred. If it’s not a complete success in its own right, and it’s not, it points the way to better films from Nichols on the horizon, and that is a good thing.