Movie Review: Midnight Special (2016)
“He’s not like us.”
Midnight Special (2016)
Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst
Synopsis: A father and son go on the run, pursued by the government and a cult drawn to the child’s special powers.
Two men are on the road with an eight-year-old boy in Midnight Special, a movie from Jeff Nichols which sells itself as an SF thriller, but is really more of a study of a parent’s selflessness when the life of their child comes under threat. These three drive the back roads by night. During the day they cover the windows of their cheap motel room with cardboard, and place black masking tape over the door viewer. The boy wears goggles and ear defenders, and reads comic books by flashlight beneath a bed sheet. This is Midnight Special‘s opening gambit, and it instantly draws us in to the – yet unknown – dangers from which they’re hiding. The film starts at a gallop, but Nichols’ low-key script dispenses information with miserly forbearance. The FBI raid the compound of a cult led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard – Out of the Furnace, Cold in July) and question him and his flock about the boy as the two men race against time to transport their passenger to a pre-determined location.
Slowly, some pieces fall into place – although Nichols frustratingly chooses to leave much unexplained. One of the men is Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon – The Iceman, Man of Steel); he’s the biological father of the boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who is now Meyer’s adopted son, and around whom the cult has built its philosophy. Alton has powers, but they’re beyond his control and seem to be slowly killing him. A piercing white light sometimes shoots from his eyes and mouth, and he speaks in tongues which, it turns out, are radio transmissions; on one occasion, they’re the maniacal delivery of a radio DJ, but at other times they are co-ordinates, and sometimes they’re classified government information. Meyer believes something apocalyptic is approaching, and that Alton will be their salvation, and so, when the police finally release him, he despatches two of his men to bring the boy back. The FBI just wants to know how an eight-year-old boy is tapping into their encrypted transmissions – and, no doubt, what use they can make of him.
Movies that start in the middle of their story usually step back in time at some point to fill in the details we need before moving forward once more, but from the opening scene,Midnight Special just keeps trucking onward, a speeding juggernaut with no thought other than to arrive at its destination. The fugitives hook up with Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst – The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues) at some point; she and Tomlin appear to be separated, but again the film is maddeningly inconclusive. It starts to look as if Nichols is deliberately toying with us. He’s not an incompetent filmmaker, nor is he prone to oversight, so we have to assume he chooses not to explain so much for a reason. Writers will often leave gaps in the story for their audience to fill, and when done right it enriches the viewing experience, but there’s a line beyond which so much is left unexplained that we start to feel as if the writer is expecting us to do his job for him. The clues may well be there – in throwaway lines and insignificant gestures – but if they’re so abstruse that they elude the majority of the audience then the film has failed in its intention. Watching Midnight Special, we wait for a revelation that never arrives.
Although Jaeden Lieberher’s vulnerable child drives the plot, it’s Michael Shannon who holds it all together. It’s a shame there aren’t more actors around like Shannon. He has no pretensions, no showy affectations. Instead, he has an air about him of a man who doesn’t understand why some actors make such a big deal about their profession. It’s a simple job, and he does it well. He and Joel Edgerton (Warrior, Jane Got a Gun), who plays Lucas, Tomlin’s friend and accomplice, are cast from the same mould, and make a strong team, and Kirsten Dunst has shed the softness of youth to become an altogether more rounded – and interesting – person. In fact, all the cast do well, although it would have been nice to have seen more of the marvellous Sam Shepard, who bows out somewhere around the ten-minute mark.
But the greatest of casts are hostage to the material with which they have to work, and while Midnight Special begins intriguingly, it feels stubbornly incomplete, so that watching it is a little like reading a book from which the first page of every chapter has been torn: you can still figure out what’s going on, but it’s a lot thinner on detail than it ought to be…
(Reviewed 7th May 2016)