MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (Entertainment One/Warner Bros.)
Dir, Script. Jeff Nichols
Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver and Sam Shepard
Plot: A mysterious and powerful boy attracts the attention of the Federal Government as he is rushed away from them to an unknown location.
Although this is his first studio feature after massive success in the independent cinema circuit, director Jeff Nichols has compromised nothing in making Midnight Special, a film which, like its 8-year-old protagonist, is unlike anything seen in cinemas this year so far. It’s a bit of a slow burn this; while other science fiction movies may go from beat-to-beat hoping to attract awe repeatedly, Midnight Special allows the awe to grow throughout – by focusing on the questions rather than the answers, Nichols keeps his audience curious until the end, although if you’re looking for a nice bookend or for the plot threads to be wrapped up in a nice little bow, this movie may not be for you.
Straight from the off, Nichols is very restrained with the information he gives. His trust of the audience is admirable, but in this can prove problematic at times. As we see more of the abilities of Alton Meyer, a child with shocking abilities thrust into the role of prophet for a church built around his words (after Batman v Superman, a second Christ allegory for just-after-Easter), I found myself a little stuck. Usually there is a film logic that can easily be followed when a picture deliberately withholds information, but when your film’s central character is an alien/pan-dimensional/light being with laser eyes, typical logic is pretty much non-applicable.
But despite this confusion, Midnight Special still remains an intriguing and thought provoking sci-fi. With the slow pace, the film definitely hinges on its characters, and fortunately they’re very well realized and brought to life by a strong cast, headlined by General Zod, Owen Lars, Mary Jane Watson and Kylo Ren. Michael ‘I WILL FIND HIM!!!!’ Shannon and Joel Edgerton are top-notch character actors on their day, but while both are okay in the film, they’ve been better. The real star performances come from Adam Driver (in his first role since scaring people off with his anger tantrums), with a wonderfully awkward performance as an NSA expert, and Jaeden Lieberher, who plays the comic-book-reading-Christ-metaphor in a manner that is way beyond his 11 years of life.
The whole production shows not only Nichols’ enhanced budget, financed by Warner Bros., but looks as if it were made for far more than its relatively miniscule $18m. Nichols’ direction is as stylised as it usually is, but he definitely lets the script do the talking. While I would say that the script achieves its aim, it does feel like an age to get there – and when it does get to the ‘reveal’ (although with a film that keeps its cards as close to the chest as this, that’s a pretty loose term), it doesn’t quite feel as profound as the filmmakers were hoping. It’s effectively awe-inspiring, but to some extent it is predictable and doesn’t altogether justify the anticipation that Nichols builds.
The look of the film is first rate, with cinematographer Adam Stone facing the challenge of a film that, as its title suggests, is a mostly nocturnal affair and shooting it with a magnificent grandeur. Special mention should also go to a terrific score, that I would have called the best one I’ve heard this year so far if 10 Cloverfield Lane hadn’t happened. Also, I feel it would be unfair to refrain from saying that there is enough lens flare in Midnight Special to give J.J. Abrams a climax. Overall though, Midnight Special is a highly ambitious and unique picture that mostly succeeds in what it tries to do, but sometimes does lose its pace and leave a bit too much hanging for everybody to be satisfied.
BEST WATCHED: I think it’s worth a cinema trip, but don’t expect the film to fall into your lap.
Jeff Nichols will next compete for the Palme d’Or with his new directorial effort, Loving, which will also star Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton – and you can see Adam Driver in competition at Cannes, as he next stars in Jim Jarmusch’s entry, Paterson. Driver will also lead the upcoming Martin Scorsese film, Silence, and obviously continue as Kylo Ren in Star Wars Episode VIII. Kirsten Dunst is next expected to star in Hidden Figures in 2017.