Dir: Jeff Nichols
Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, David Jensen, Scott Haze
2.5 STARS (out of 5)
Anyone looking at recent box office listings recently could be forgiven for thinking that movies appear to fall into four or five categories – quirky comedies, comic book movies, ‘true’ stories, reboots of old franchises, pop culture-laden animated films – and while many of these vary in quality, it’s not surprising that there are more critics on the movie scene than ever – but thankfully, there are still a number of unique oddities and genuine finds amongst the listings that help shake things up a bit. Jeff Nichols’ latest directorial offering, Midnight Special, manages to be subversive and disquieting in equal measure – and, for many looking for a genuine alternative to mainstream cinema, it will surely satisfy – even if there are a few areas which fail to let it get quite as good as it signposted.
Midnight Special is a hard movie to summarize without giving too much away; however, it revolves around a young boy who is found to exhibit strange supernatural powers, and is sought by both a local cult and the FBI after he is taken on the run by his father – as the cult believes him to be a saviour from above, and the FBI note that he has been able to exhibit confidential information in the form of co-ordinates – forcing the boy to become a fugitive source of interest for several people. As the movie continues, more of the boy’s abilities are exhibited, the mystery surrounding the true nature as to why he is how he is ramps up towards a nail-biting conclusion.
The way Midnight Special is told goes very much against the grain – anyone expecting a run-of-the-mill tale of the paranormal will be surprised to see that we are thrown into the action late into the day, and that there is very little exposition at all between characters – leaving much up to interpretation. This factor is both to the movie’s success and its detriment – while long silences and a lack of exposition do much to ramp up the tension and the mystery, they grate more than a little over halfway into the movie. The characters share long, knowing silences – which, while working great for dramatic effect, offer little other than frustration for viewers looking for a helping hand from the script, particularly in the film’s last thirty minutes. Certainly, this is a movie which gives viewers little to work with, and that is both its charm and its fatal flaw.
Midnight Special is impressively realized, with superb cinematography and dark, beaten-down locations littering the way to emphasize the lack of light in the young boy’s life – and it’s a movie which is constantly on the move, from the sterile offices of the FBI through to the claustrophobic car scenes – making it a story which perhaps has little time to stick around and give too much away.
This is a movie, many be warned, which – while it gives answers to some mysteries by the story’s end – is tight-lipped about much of the secrets it keeps. The answers it gives garner more questions, and ones we don’t get answers to – making it the sort of movie that charms a certain type of audience through its vagueness. To some, this sort of movie can be extremely annoying – see the original Cloverfield for one of cinema’s best examples – meaning that coupled with its no-tolerance policy with exposition, this is a picture which will fail to meet wide appeal, but is likely to do well as a cult movie for years to follow.
The cast work well together despite much of the script and dialogue being deliberately ambiguous – and while many viewers may find the extended silences and dialogue-free acting grate as the movie wears on, this is a talented cast that adds authenticity to an otherwise supernatural movie. In some cases, it feels ridiculous that they are discussing the supernatural at all – as much effort has been put in to make the ensuing movie as gritty and as authentic as possible. What dialogue exists herein is natural and it is the lack of storytelling nuances that help us understand a screenplay better that give Midnight Special its pitfalls.
The conclusion is, while it answers a few questions, rather unsatisfying, again appearing ambiguous to the audience at large and leaving many wondering what it was they had seen. This is a movie that struggles to connect with as wide an audience as it may like thanks to its insistence upon offering little to no exposition – some, finely balanced, works wonders – but going too far in one direction can either detract from realism or ultimately confuse. The plot is great – the characters are well-realized, too – but there are also a number of editing and scriptwriting issues that could have seen the movie move in more interesting or more satisfying directions, and perhaps give more of a focus to one or more of the parties involved in the boy’s pursuit. I, personally, would have enjoyed a larger focus on the cult aspect, and would have enjoyed this side of the story drawn out for dramatic tension.
However, Midnight Special is what it is – it’s by no means a traditional supernatural thriller, nor is it typical sci-fi – the way in which it is told is daring and unconventional; however, this is ultimately its undoing. A superbly interesting premise coupled with a great cast and direction are let down by ambiguous dialogue and storytelling that allow the story to drag in all the wrong places. On a technical level, it’s very good indeed – but in terms of broad satisfaction, I cannot see how anyone bar the core demographic will get much entertainment from the two hours. While it is fantastic to see new premises and challenging new movies get wide release, such movies are only so satisfying if they tell a story in an effective manner.