A low profile high quality film, Midnight Special is another strong addition to director Jeff Nichols’ body of work. Just don’t expect a straight answer.
If you’re not familiar with Jeff Nichols work, you could be forgiven. The writer/director of Midnight Special has only directed 3 other movies. All went comfortably under the radar, and all were raved about by critics and viewers alike. If on the other hand you;re already familiar with Nichols’ work, then you won’t be surprised by Midnight Special. All of the gritty realism that made Mud and Take Shelter great have been adopted again. Only this time around, Nichols has applied it to a sci-fi drama. This is one of the reasons why Midnight Special stands out so spectacularly. There are two kinds of sc-fi films, both good in their own way. The first kind is the action sc-fi: heavy on explanation, heavy on exposition, but redeemed by mind-boggling cinematography or monstrous set pieces. The second kind is the drama or thriller sci-fi. It’s quiet, unassuming, doesn’t explain a whole lot and for that reason is incredibly gripping. Midnight Special falls into the second category with staggering ease, but continuously toes the line and is ready to leap into the action category.
From the start, the film plays out like a crime drama in the vein of True Detective. Two men have kidnapped a young boy named Alton – played by Jaeden Lieberher. The fact that by the opening scene this has already happened and we are seeing the escape unfurl without explanation is refreshing. The next thing we know we’re watching one man tell another that he has four days to find the boy, only to discover that both men belong to a cult that is almost immediately shut down by FBI agents. Why? Because the boy – their messiah – speaks in tongues that just happen to coincide with encrypted government transmissions. This kind of writing and directing takes no prisoners and lets the audience know that they’ll just have to pick it up as they go. In the wrong hands this can be an alienating technique, but Nichols uses just the right amount of suspense and double-take twists to keep us on his side.
The unpredictability doesn’t just have to do with who this boy is or what he can do. It’s near impossible to tell exactly where the film is going to take you or how large the scale will be. At one point Alton is picking up a Spanish radio station and talking along with it to the amusement of his captors. The next, Alton is seemingly pulling a satellite out of the sky that nearly destroys a gas station in a fiery assault. And then without a beat the scale shrinks down again. There’s no constant one-upmanship in Midnight Special. Instead of constantly making us look up, Nichols will make us look down just in time to see him pull the rug out from under us.
The relatively small cast is made almost entirely of ordinary characters – with the exception of Alton who to his credit is still very unassuming. Michael Shannon plays his father, former-cult member and captor who will stop at nothing to get to Alton particular location mentioned in one of his “transmissions”. Joel Edgerton plays fellow captor Lucas, a former state trooper who doesn’t now exactly what he’s doing, other than it’s the right thing. Both are unassuming until they need to do something extraordinary – Lucas must shoot a fellow state trooper so they can continue undetected. Adam Driver is a curious NSA analyst who should be terrified of Alton but is constantly desperate to find out what the truth of the story is. Everyone is powerfully average. None of them know what’s happening, and neither do we.
Kirsten Dunst hasn’t really blown me away since Melancholia. Fair play to her for constantly breaking out of her comfort zone, but this time around she’s fallen fairly flat. Her role as Alton’s mother is an important one, but it’s easy to imagine the same role being played by a lesser known actress far more effectively. Even her compatibility with estranged husband Shannon and son Lieberher are a little strained, as she seemed a little too bewildered even for this film.
Midnight Special isn’t a long film, clocking in at 110 minutes or so. Despite the film being travelling light out of necessity to keep the suspense up, a lot of potentially interesting material was left behind. The nature of the cult isn’t examined beyond a two minute interview with the cult leader (Calvin Meyer). While this portion of the plot was left behind very easily, it would have been interesting to see what happened to all these cult members who were summarily rounded up and forced back into their real lives. Maybe Midnight Special didn’t quite have the muscle mass to take on that story as well as Alton’s journey, but it would have been nice to see Nichols give it a go.
In the end 90% of disappointment from audiences will be due to the story being fantastically open-ended. Alton manages to open a portal that sees another race of highly-evolved energy-based beings and their spectacularly futuristic buildings merge with our world. Alton leave with them and that’s all she wrote. I’m a big fan of this: the rest of the characters are forced to return to their everyday lives after seeing such an unbelievable spectacle. However this isn’t likely to be enough of a novelty to keep audiences satisfied, and a lot of people may leave the cinemas feeling short-changed.
One of the cult members says in an off-hand way that he used to be an electrician and now is being asked to hunt down a boy-messiah and kill his kidnappers. After this he says “sometimes we are asked to do things that are beyond us”. That line is the mantra of Midnight Special. Whether it’s being part of a cult, tracking down an inexplicable information leak for the government, or letting your son lead you to the middle of nowhere so he can disappear forever into another world. Every character in this film is forced to do things that are beyond them, and watching them struggle with these purposes but at the same time never divert from them makes for a powerful story.
I have no doubt that this film, like all of Nichols projects, will keep a low profile. However that won’t take away from Midnight Special’s stratospheric quality.