Midnight Special / Jeff Nichols / 2016 /
Active Ingredients: Humanistic tone; Michael Shannon; Emotional undercurrents
Side Effects: Those same emotional moments sacrificed to momentum
Much has been made of Midnight Special‘s comparisons to a specific breed of old-fashioned, family-centered sci-fi films such as E.T., Close Encounters, and John Carpenter’s Starman. It’s true, director Jeff Nichols had these films in mind while crafting his own humane work about the wonderment of experiences beyond our understanding. But these comparisons fail to account for a significant difference in tone. Here, the wonder is fraught with worry, the adventure overshadowed by danger and desperation. Midnight Special isn’t exactly somber, but its tone exposes its concern with we imperfect beings here on Earth, and not simply a romantic Beyond.
The film stars the intense and alien-looking Michael Shannon as Roy, a father who escapes a cult with his eight-year-old son, Alton. The film opens in medias res with the pair and an accomplice named Lucas (Joel Edgerton) holed up in a dark motel room on the run. The cult wants the boy back, but the FBI is after him as well for his strange and unexplained powers. Over the course of the film, Roy and Lucas work to uncover the source of his abilities and understand the sensations he receives from another world.
Midnight Special is structured like a road movie, a chase or an adventure, but its carefully crafted tone complicates that categorization. Like Michael Shannon, the film is quiet and brooding, a calm and stolid exterior containing spring-loaded, coiled energy. It features very little music, multiple strands of a story matter-of-factly explored and abandoned, and, most unusual for a contemporary film purporting realism, a thoughtful and stabilized camera. All of these choices by Nichols help the film reach a fascinating pitch between the light fantasy of its premise, and the drama and warmth of the central relationships between its characters.
At its heart, Midnight Special is the story of a concerned father and a sacrificing mother, a family that relies on each other for strength and for whom nothing else matters. Nichols and his fantastic cast (including Kirsten Dunst and the wise-beyond-his-years Jaeden Lieberher) allow moments of relatable humanity and emotional honesty to pierce through the film’s story like the blinding white light that emanates from Alton’s eyes. Wordless exchanges that speak volumes pass between father and son in an instant; stolen glances indicate a mother’s deep love and its inherent pain.
Moments like these, it’s clear, is where Midnight Special‘s true interest lie. Even if they’re occasionally sacrificed to the momentum of the story, they pepper the film and help it reach for the core of humanity within its gesturings towards the otherworldly.
Midnight Special starts strongly, and finishes nowhere very interesting. The slow-drip plot mechanics lead us to assume that all our questions will eventually be answered, but what makes Midnight Special so damn frustrating is that most of them aren’t even asked. What started with a gripping premise slackens and goes limp. Solid acting!