Starring: Michael Shannon (Man of Steel), Joel Edgerton (The Gift), Kirsten Dunst (Spider-Man), Adam Driver (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent), Sam Shepard (Cold in July)
Writer/Director: Jeff Nichols (Mud)
Runtime: 1 hour 52 minutes
Release Date: 18 March (US), 8 April (UK)
It’s rare to see an indie film tackle genre subject matter, but it’s something I welcome wholeheartedly. Some would use obstacles like budget and audience as an excuse not to try, but if you have an big idea that fits within a small scope, why not go for it? It brings a different, more honest perspective to high concept ideas, creating a more intimate experience that the majority of Hollywood blockbusters would be too scared to do. Midnight Special certainly accomplishes all of that and, though it perhaps retains a little too much of its indie roots, certainly serves as a great example of what can be done with a little money and a big imagination.
I’ll say this up front: if you like everything in a movie to be explained up front, Midnight Special is going to frustrate you. It jumps immediately into the story with absolutely no context, instead revealing details about the world and its characters through natural dialogue as it moves along. It makes the first act incredibly hard to follow, but it’s intriguing from the off and the way questions are answered does ultimately feel a lot better than getting some giant exposition dump up front. From there, the movie moves at a consistent if somewhat lagging pace, keeping the momentum up and upping the tension at suitable moments, but there are certain spots where the story does drag. At nearly two hours, the film could have easily been trimmed down a little to give it less weight. But what’s ultimately going to divide the audience is the film’s ending, which I’m sure will leave many viewers unsatisfied but others debating its meaning. It’s certainly a vague and ambiguous ending but on purposely so, putting us in the exact same shoes as our main characters and leaving it up to us to comprehend what just happened. It trusts the audience to think for themselves and interpret what’s going on rather than spoon-feeding us the easy answer, and I appreciate it when a film has the guts to do that. In other words, Midnight Special throws all of its complex ideas regarding faith, science and the nature of reality at us and then asks us, “What do you think?” Not even Christopher Nolan movies make us do that much legwork.
As a director, Jeff Nichols has always done a great job of getting strong naturalistic performances out of his actors and, in many ways, it’s even more important to do that in a film that involves fantastical elements; if the actors on screen don’t believe what they’re experiencing, we can’t either. Nichols keeps up that record in Midnight Special, and at the forefront of that is his inseparable partner-in-crime Michael Shannon, who delivers a fantastic lead performance as desperate father Roy. He’s a very forlorn character willing to go to absurd lengths, perhaps even criminal ones, but it’s all because he loves his son and wants to protect him from all the pain he’s been through. At his side is a very understated Joel Edgerton as Lucas, who we don’t learn a huge amount about but through Edgerton’s performance we see a lot of wounds and experience. Kirsten Dunst also gives a very down-to-earth performance as Shannon’s estranged wife Sarah, bringing a sense of damage and anguish rarely seen in her other roles. Adam Driver is wonderful as perplexed NSA agent Sevier, doing his best to keep up with a situation that grows increasingly bizarre and bringing some much needed humour to the film, and though his screen time is short Sam Shepard is as magnetic as ever as suspicious cult leader Calvin Meyer. But in the end, it’s Jaeden Lieberher as the messianic child Alton Meyer who ultimately steals the show. Lieberher balances that fine line between odd and believable, managing to feel like a real kid whilst also managing to sell that he’s something more. It’s a performance that could have easily been too saccharine or too robotic, but here it just clicks and it’s ultimately what makes the movie work.
Though its generous budget affords it some slightly fancier sets and some solid CGI for certain key moments, Midnight Special is still an indie film at heart and it certainly feels like one in its technical execution for the most part. The cinematography has that warm grainy feel many films of its ilk naturally have, helping to keep the visuals grounded in reality even when it goes into sci-fi territory. The visual effects are impressive whenever they’re called for, with Alton’s light emissions having a very unique visual look and one that blends flawlessly with the naturalistic tone. David Wingo’s score also helps greatly to amplify the film’s mood, evoking the work of John Carpenter in how it builds and trails suspense.
Midnight Special certainly isn’t a movie for everyone, but if from the trailer it seems like your bag then you’re going to at least appreciate it. It’s certainly a perspective on science fiction that could have only come from Jeff Nichols, blending his usual penchant for pragmatic drama with fantastic speculative concepts without ever feeling like they’re two separate things. It’s a vague movie and often frustratingly so, but in the hours since seeing it I’ve been constantly debating in my head what it all means, and only the truly good movies will keep you doing that. If nothing else, I hope Midnight Special serves as a great example to indie filmmakers to take their sensibilities and carry them over into the world of genre fiction; it’s a fantastic world that could use some more quirky and unique voices.
FINAL VERDICT: 8/10