A boy with mysterious abilities gets kidnapped
Midnight Special is, really, all about ambiance. It’s a nocturnal, southern, chase film, with a side order of the supernatural. It is populated by pained protagonists, puzzled government officials, and religious fanatics.
Writer-director Jeff Nichols follows Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) who, having kidnapped eight-year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), are on the run. Both the police and the religious commune they stole the child from are on their tails. Things turn out to be much more complex, but the trick with Midnight Special is that it tells you very little, handing out only morsels of information as it goes.
Unfortunately, this tight-lipped balancing act doesn’t quite deliver. Nichols leaves too much undisclosed, for too long. At the climax of so much anticipation, any audience would expect a rewarding, dramatic, Sixth Sense type payoff. There isn’t one. Instead, the film’s outcome rests on a vague sci-fi trope. The director also leaves many loose ends behind, obscuring our view of the religious community, Adam Driver’s eager and awkward NSA officer, and any backstory of Alton’s parents.
All this opacity makes it difficult to sympathise with the main characters. Shannon, Edgerton and Kirsten Dunst (who plays Alton’s mother) look suitably afflicted. However, it’s difficult to feel much watching them, when you don’t know what they’re suffering about. In addition, Lieberher is given too few lines, especially in the film’s first half – again making it a challenge to root for his quest.
It’s as if Nichols couldn’t quite decide what sort of film he wanted. For instance, Midnight Special is not far from a dreamlike, ethereal sort of film. For this angle to work wel;, Nichols ought to have given us even less information.
However, to succeed as a more realistic sci-fi, a little more plot would have grounded the film and made it more persuasive.
Despite all this, Midnight Special is in some ways admirable, because it is ambitious. It is poised at the frontier between independent and studio film, thriller and sci-fi. The forceful performances of Shannon, Dunst and Edgerton do keep things interesting – but not enough to prevent the film from getting dull, after it becomes clear that its mysteries won’t deliver a satisfying payoff. It’s not a watch for casual entertainment, but rather, good as something thought-provoking and flawed that is enjoyable to analyse.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum