Review: Midnight Special (2016)

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Midnight Special (2016): Faliro House Productions/Tri-State Pictures

Jeff Nichols has followed up doom-laden psychological horror TAKE SHELTER and big-hearted fable MUD with MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, his biggest film to date. While there’s plenty in it to talk about, it’s admittedly far wonkier than what has come before.

A father (Michael Shannon) and a son (Jaeden Lieberher) are on the run from the government and fanatic tag-alongs. They are not criminals, but young Alton is no ordinary young boy and the cult built around him and the relentless G-men driving the search have designs on his wondrous and destructive special powers. Alton, along with his father, mother (Kirsten Dunst) and protector (Joel Edgerton) embarks on a high-risk journey for his freedom.

I can’t really fault the honest intentions behind the film (Nichols is reflecting on a father’s need to protect), or the (mostly) sparing use of special effects and eerie sound design. What I will say is that the pacing in Midnight Special is way off. Whenever the story builds any momentum it is lost again almost immediately by Nichols’ tendency to cut to a serene landscape somewhere in the American South. These still moments have their place of course, helping a story not feel monotonous and providing the viewer with time for reflection. They also kill tension when placed midway through action scenes or immediately following plot advancement. Speaking of plot advancement, we learn a lot of key information through the central quartet of characters watching news reports on what is supposed to be going on, and this is an incredibly clumsy device.

The cast are pretty good across the board, particularly Dunst’s pained, instinctual mother, Driver’s inquisitive, decent NSA man and Jaeden Lieberher’s Alton, the otherworldly “special” of the title. Shannon and Edgerton are both intense but I really struggled to penetrate their Southern drawl and at times it seemed like they were in a war of escalation in mumbling. I don’t understand why you’d hire a character actor with such presence as Sam Shepard and only give him one scene at the beginning of your film though. Nichols clearly likes working with Shepard, casting him again after Mud so it seems odd he gave him such a nothing role here.

Said scene with Shepard kicks off a storyline involving a backwater cult (unfortunately resembling the one from UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT) that goes precisely nowhere. They send some goons after the family and are working with the government to no certain ends, but they are pretty much dumped by the wayside early on.

A lot of what transpires, what characters see and what is really real is left up to the viewer’s interpretation. What we see as an audience though, despite raising possibilities aplenty, tends to collapse under the weight of even the slightest intrusion of logic.

The emotions of Midnight Special are very real, and Jeff Nichols clearly isn’t quite ready to hand in his indie credentials yet, but is this destined to be anything beyond a curiosity? It provokes discussion points, feels oddball and moody and has a very distinctive aesthetic, but the way the plot hangs together and lack of commitment to a strong central idea makes the film less than the sum of its parts. People will talk about this one, but it might be more out of frustration than passion. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Sam Mendes, Guillermo del Toro, Bong Joon-ho, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Spike Jonze, Rian Johnson and the Coen Brothers. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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