Heading back to the cinema for the first time in a few weeks, myself and herself were faced with a choice: The Jungle Book, which has been critically celebrated but whose promotion left me numb, Eddie The Eagle, looking both inspiring and positive, but also sentimental and predictable, or…Midnight Special. That was the one we trumped for in the end, this supernatural mystery film with a stand-out cast and an interesting hook. I’m wasn’t super familiar with the work of director Jeff Nichols, but I knew he was an acclaimed story-teller: was Midnight Special a suitable introduction to him, or should my girlfriend and I gone with Eddie or Mowgli?
Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) abducts his eight-year-old son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) from a religious cult, who believe Alton’s otherworldly powers make him their saviour, in the face of a coming date of world-changing significance. Fleeing with childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgarton) and Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), Roy must deal with the violent manifestations of his son’s powers, while evading the agents of the cult and the US government, fronted by inquisitive NSA agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver).
Speaking of my girlfriend (who has spent five wonderful years tolerating my ramblings about films) it was she who succinctly summed up Midnight Special better than I could. When I pondered, after the screening, just why the film was called “Midnight Special”, her response was simply “Because it was a stupid movie, that’s why.” And she’s right. Midnight Special is a stupid movie. And I don’t mean that in a uniformly derogatory way, because there is plenty to like about Midnight Special. But the film falls to pieces long before the credits roll, and allows a narrative stupidity to infect what could otherwise have been a fascinating paranormal enigma in the grandest sci-fi style of Spielberg. Midnight Special wants to be E.T, or Close Encounters, so, so badly, but in the end is more like a Tomorrowland or Lucy or, dare I say it, Interstellar.
And what I mean by that is that Midnight Special does great work in setting up what it needs to set-up: this strange child with strange powers, a desperate father trying to keep him safe, and lots of nefarious parties trying to track the two down. But when it comes to the last act, that critical last 30-40 minutes, Midnight Special, just doesn’t hold up. It has all the hallmarks of a film where serious thought was put into the basic premise and the characters and the plot beats for the first hour, before a muddled and ill-thought out ending was attached, one that struggles to be moving, engaging or in any way satisfying.
Let’s skip back a bit. We are introduced to the film’s trinity in the opening moments: father Roy, son Alton and friend Lucas. They are on the run, and we aren’t exactly sure why, or why Lucas is helping the other two. A succession of well-executed “Holy shit” moments follow, as the extent of Alton’s powers are vividly portrayed, most notably in a brief but stunning sequence at a highway gas station, when things turn from the disturbingly strange to the near-Biblical in scope. But all the while Nichols is keeping things at a very personal level, in the relationship between Roy and Alton, portrayed less through words and more through action. In order to work, the “Supernatural boy heading towards destiny” angle actually has to be subordinate to the “Father trying to protect his son” angle, and Midnight Special does that for much of its running time. That made it interesting, and engaging, and the emphasis on faith in large parts of the narrative, how characters express it and deal with it in regards Alton, was interesting as well.
And Nichols knows how to spin out a mystery too. Things smartly open in medias reis with no depictions of Alton’s actual abduction from the ranch, and move swiftly onwards. We get numerous hints as to Alton’s make-up, and Midnight Special lets it fester in the mind of the audience for an appropriate enough time. Is he some kind of scientific oddity, a mutant who can communicate and control electronic devices? Is he a superhero in the making (the film cleverly nodding towards Superman in the comics Alton reads, while Zod sits in the seat ahead of him)? Is he some sort of religious messiah character, here to save the righteous from a pre-ordained apocalypse? Is he from our planet? Midnight Special keeps you guessing, effectively, as you remain a few steps behind the actual characters for a long time.
Until you aren’t guessing anymore. I’ll talk about it in more detail down below, but, spoiler-free, the reveal is a clumsy and confusing one, that leaves the audience initially befuddled in the vague wording, and then utterly baffled at the conclusion, when Nichols takes the E.T/Close Encounters riff a bit too far in his pursuit of an ending that will be a suitable pay-off for what has come before. But it’s all so muddled: things are first explained in a deliberately imprecise manner, then in a too clear-cut manner, and then it’s a rush to the final scenes, to the money shots that seem too half-assed.
And of we’re talking flaws in structure, this is the first film in a while where I had a very definite sense that I was watching something that would be fully approved and certified by Blake Snyder’s academy of successful screenwriting. The beats of his now famous “beat sheet” are there for all to see, from the “Theme Stated” in the opening minutes to the “Catalyst” driving the plot into Act Two, “Bad Guys Close In” with the “ranch” assassins, “All Is Lost” at the beginning of third act and the contrasted “Opening/Final Image”. And there’s more where that came from. I’m not saying that a film following the beat sheet is an inherently bad story. It’s quite the opposite, in practise. But there are times when you really see the beats coming through on-screen, and it’s not a good thing to realise. Midnight Special was one of those films for me.
And maybe it was the adherence to the beat sheet formula that caused the fall-off in the character journeys that so stunts the final act. Leaving aside the primary relationship of Roy and Alton, many others of the cast seem truncated in most respects: Lucas is potentially fascinating, but finds himself caught bluntly stating his motivations and reasons for coming along on the journey (which are lazily convenient), Sarah is introduced a bit late and gets to be little more than fretful and regretful in equal measure, the ranch cult and its agents are frustratingly shallow, dropping out of the story very quickly when the narrative has no more need of them, and Adam Driver’s NSA agent seems more of a plot point crux than an actual living, breathing three dimensional being: a tool by which Nichols can manufacture a predictable “government tries to understand something it can’t understand” scene, and them a clumsy and all too convenient resolution to the same. Why he does what he does goes unexplained.
You can’t really fault the actors when it comes to all that stuff either. Shannon, reuniting with Nichols again after such critically acclaimed performances in things like Take Shelter, really does radiate the kind of energy, concern, fear and desperation you would associate with a father trying to get his son the help he needs while dangerous forces close in for the kill. He doesn’t take much, but he doesn’t have to: his Roy is the very essence of a tight-lipped emotionally buried father figure, whose strength and morality comes through in actions. It’s a crime I was introduced to Shannon so late in his career, in his wonderful turn as the corrupt cop bad guy in Premium Rush, and he is one of the best working today. He’s matched by Lieberher on the other side of that relationship. It’s not the hardest role to play – Alton portrayed as a monotone and largely expressionless child – but it’s in the moments when this façade cracks that it becomes clear the kind of emotional range Lieberher brings to the part.
Everyone around them is doing decent work too, it’s just that the characters don’t go to interesting enough places. Edgerton has fast become Mr Reliable in Hollywood, and probably deserves more leading roles himself – he’s going to be doing that in the directors next film, Loving, out in November – while Dunst makes a welcome return to the big screen properly, having done little of note between her turn in 2011’s Melancholia and now. Adam Driver’s awkward Paul actually does have a bit of Kylo Ren in him, in his somewhat awkward and repressed words and actions, but he does enough by the end to banish thoughts of his more famous role by the end.
But the power of the ensemble – as whitewashed as any film I have seen recently, I feel it is worthwhile noting – can’t do anything when they have the kind of material that makes up the last act to work with. The intriguing mystery stops being intriguing, and rather than be a film that lets you come to your own conclusions and maintains a bit of a question mark, Midnight Special just can’t help itself. The final scenes are vague and ultimately fruitless attempts to deflect some of the crushing reality that comes sneaking in after the main resolution, with a vibe almost of setting up a sequel, which is not what I expected of this director.
Visually, it’s all quite good. Nichols, in line with long-time collaborator Adam Stone, crafts an intimate and up-close film, where the brief moments of CGI wizardry are decent accompaniments rather than distractions. The apocalyptic happenings that litter Midnight Special come as part of a very small-scale production in terms of visuals – I can’t have been the only one that thought of Chronicle – and that works really well in the first hour or so. They play around with alternating focus a lot, putting us firmly in the mind of Alton at critical moments, and are happy to let their principals do as much of the work as possible, favouring tight, enclosed camera work in cars and motel rooms, making Midnight Special seem less like a sci-fi drama and more like a runaway film on a very small budget ($18 million apparently, and I’m guessing a lot of that went to Shannon, Edgerton, Dunst and Driver). Case in point, a brilliant sequence when a tense car chase turns into a traffic jam, that, framed just right, manages to increase the tension exponentially (though what happens afterwards is not all that great).
I think Nichols wants you to feel like you are along for the ride with the Tomlin’s, and for much of the film you do feel just like that. But, along with the other failures of the third act, the jarring change in cinematography theme and tone in that portion of the film feels very odd, but does work to a limited extent, planting the audience in the middle of a very different environment to the one they have witnessed in the rest of the experience.
I rarely mention such things here, but I was also impressed by Midnight Special’s sound design, which alternated between lengthy sequences of quiet dialogue and limited score, to sudden, thundering bursts of noise, from squealing cars, gunshots, helicopters and the likes. Nichols seems to be a director who understands properly the way that sound can be utilised in film to promote tension, fright, nervousness and sudden anxiety, and Midnight Special has numerous examples of this (of course, it probably helped that the screen I saw the film in, 11 at Vue Liffey Valley, seemed to have its speaker system set-up for a 200-seat screen, instead of the comparatively tiny one I was in).
Here’s my problems with the central resolution of Midnight Special’s mystery: there’s this strange and unpalatable combination of spelling somethings out too clearly, thus making the overall premise much less interesting, and then leaving other things way too vague. Alton is a member of a race of people(?) from another plane of existence connected to our own, just more advanced and with very different architecture. This comes up first in very, very vague terms before it is made far more clear in the conversation between Alton and Paul. But then, having opened the floodgates of detail, Midnight Special leaves you hanging on so many other things. So:
-Why do Alton’s eyes and hands glow? Is he human? Are the floating red eyes from the other plane human?
-Why does Alton need to hide from the sun? And how does it later “cure” him?
-If Alton is part of this other race, how did he wind up in our world? Was he born here? I assume so, but then how does he have all these powers?
-Is Roy a member of this other plane’s species too? If so, how did he get to our Earth? If not, what’s with the eye thing at the end?
-This eye thing that Alton does to the ranch members: what is the purpose of it? What is it he is trying to convey?
-Alton says the other plane has been watching us for a long time. Why didn’t they step in to help Alton before, if they are capable of bringing him over to their world?
Questions upon questions, a failure of the Inception Test. Midnight Special might have been better served by not attempting any kind of firm explanation at all – more Super 8 I guess, than E.T – but leaving nearly everything to the audience’s imagination. No weird buildings, no ghosts, just a disappearing child in a flash and a bang. That would have annoyed many I’m sure, but might have been a better way to keep the focus on the familial relationship between Roy, Alton and Sarah, that the film largely forgets in its closing moments in favour of bland spectacle.
In the end then, thanks to a combination of narrative malaise towards the conclusion and characters that don’t get to see their journey’s end properly, Midnight Special is a disappointment. It isn’t a bad film really, but I think that it’s only two-thirds of a film, with the rest cooked up without the care and attention that was given to the other sections. The cast is generally quite strong, the script is fine and the visual direction is promising, But Midnight Special falls flat when it comes to its story which simply isn’t on the same level as the things it is trying so desperately to be like. I sense that Nichols is a good director, and I’d be perfectly willing to give him a shot again, maybe on something that wasn’t sci-fi. But Spielberg he ain’t. My girlfriend was right. Not a write off, and not the worst film I have seen this year (far from it) but not something i can fully recommended.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).