IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 112 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Roy has fled a religious cult in rural Texas with his eight-year-old son Alton, who possesses otherworldly powers. An ‘Amber Alert’ is issued for the child, leading Roy and his accomplice and long-lost childhood friend, Lucas, a state trooper, to help bring the boy to an undisclosed location on a specific date. Meanwhile, the FBI investigates the cult in their search for Alton; Paul Sevier interviews members who proclaim Alton’s supernatural abilities, explaining that the boy had to live on a nocturnal sleeping schedule, and was unable to face daylight. He explains that the church’s sermons and their dates, based on prophecies made by Alton, are encoded with secret government information communicated by satellite….
Director Jeff Nichols was an ‘unknown quantity’ to me before I went into the cinemas to see his fifth movie, and his first to have a sizeable budget and be produced by a major studio, so I can’t tell you how I think Midnight Special compares to Mud etc,.but I can tell you that it’s quite a impressive movie with a fairly unique style and feel to it, and this is coming from someone who has been somewhat underwhelmed by two or three of the more critically acclaimed movies he’s seen of late [though of course some of that may be due to expectation and hype, the latter something which I should have learnt to stop buying into years ago but, being such a movie lover, I still can’t stop myself doing from time to time]. Succeeding in managing to have both a indie and a major studio production feel at the same time [which sounds odd I know but you’ll see what I mean if you watch the film], Nichols’s offbeat, science fiction-tinged road movie, kind of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind meets D.A.R.Y.L, is involving right from the beginning, treats its viewers as intelligent people who are able to work some things out for themselves and don’t need everything to be spelt out, and is mostly worthy of the high praise it’s been getting from the majority of critics, though it falters a bit towards the end which makes me wonder if Warners required the original script to be altered in its final stages.
Nichols tells his story in a very unusual way, a way that could have resulted in confusion but which somehow succeeds in working extremely well for the film. The movie opens already well over half way through its tale; in fact it’s pretty much near the end of it. If you’re like me you may initially get frustrated because we seem to jump straight into near the end of a story we haven’t been given any background of, and it does make it a little hard to get emotionally involved in the proceedings too. However, Nichols then decides to gradually feed bits and pieces of background throughout his narrative without it ever drawing attention to itself as background. Now I should say that there’s quite a lot which remains vague, and even as I type I wish I’d been told, for instance, why Lucas is as determined, to the point of risking his life, to get Roy’s son to the place he needs to be as Roy is himself [we learn a small amount of background regarding the two characters but not much], and how on earth Roy and Sarah managed to give birth to an otherwordly son who can do all these amazing things. However, I’m sure, in a few days time, I will be pleased that the film left so much that is ambiguous and unexplained. Not enough pictures are brave enough to do this these days.
A thrilling opening act immediately grabs. We’re introduced to Roy, who is on the run with his eight-year-old son, Alton, aided by his friend Lucas, in a motel room as they pack up all their stuff while a news report tells us of the manhunt for the two men and their ‘abductee’. The trio hits the road, Lucas donning a pair of night vision goggles so their car can drive along the darkened highway with its lights turned off. Information as what is going on is fed to us in small doses as both the FBI and a religious cult are after the boy. The FBI think he’s a dangerous weapon, and indeed Alton does seem to be able to access information which shouldn’t exactly be accessible, while the religious cult think he’s some kind of Messiah. In fact, he grew up with them under the care of Calvin, the leader of the group, but has now been ‘abducted’ by his father and his father’s mate so they can take him somewhere important.
What with a pretty exciting early scene where bits of a satellite fall out of the sky because of Alton’s doing, some may be disappointed at the relative brevity of the bits of action to follow. Much time is spent with the FBI interviewing members of the cult, but the film is consistently gripping in its fairly quiet way, and Nichols likes to take his time with what is, if you think about it, quite a simple story; he’s just made it seem more complex with his handling of it. He avoids easy sentimentality, and lets us wonder if Roy is doing the right thing. One particularly strong moment has Lucas want to get Alton to a hospital because he’s ill and could be dying, and Roy refuses. There is a certain coldness in the handling, but this also means that when Roy tells his son how he really feels about him, it’s very touching despite still being underplayed. Unfortunately, and this is what really lets the side dowm, Nichols seems unsure about how to end his story, and opts for obviousness over subtlety, but leaves us asking even more questions as a result, while the imagery has certainly been seen before too. Overall the CGI is pretty good for a film which still has a relatively modest budget by Hollywood standards, but there’s too much of it. How many times do we need to see white lasers shooting out of the boy’s eyes?
The story seems to contain obvious religious, especially Christian, parallels that almost make it one for the ‘God squad’, but these elements are not overdone and the viewer is certainly not forced to accept them. Rather, the film presents these things in a questioning and ambiguous way and makes us ask ourselves how far one should take one’s faith and beliefs. This film is often extremely atmospheric, especially when our protagonists are just driving along at night, and cinematographer Adam Stone gives us some memorable images, such as a convoy of lorries lighting up a road in the distance, though he overdoes the darkness during some moments. This was obviously a deliberate choice, and it does mean that when we see, for example, a stream of light coming from a helicopter, it has more impact and almost blinds the viewer like it would do the characters, but there are times where it’s almost impossible to see what’s going on. For the most part though, Nichols and Stone direct and photograph Midnight Special with considerable grace and restraint, often opting for long shots and lengthy takes over close-ups and fast edits, making it feel like an early John Carpenter movie at times, aided by David Wingo’s restrained but effective synthesiser score [retro synthesiser scores really do seem to be in vogue at the moment], yet despite all this it still feels fresh and modern.
The acting is uniformly excellent, though it has to be when dialogue is often sparse and looks have to convey so much. Thankfully Michael Shannon, who can show so much with a single glance, is on fine form here [we’ll forget Man Of Steel I think], conveying great determination alongside inner torment with admirable restraint, while Adam Driver shows how well he can shine in a decently written [if still fairly stock] part which also provides just a little bit of humour, but it’s Joel Edgerton who impresses above everyone else in what could easily have been a one-note performance, given the character, in lesser hands. Even young Jaeden Liberher is strong, being fittingly precocious, and he gives us some impressive moments throughout without ever overdoing it. There’s such a lot to praise in Midnight Special that it’s a shame that it fails to have the courage of its convictions in its final act, but it’s been pretty good getting there. Though not quite an instant classic, Nichols has made an admirably enigmatic, yet still relatable, little gem here.