Published on August 19th, 2016 | by Tyson Thompson0
MIDNIGHT SPECIAL : written and directed by Jeff Nichols
Our fascination with discovering “other lifeforms” is the driving force behind this sci-fi drama that only lets us get so close to the rare enigma at the center of the story.
Before we are even aware of how much special power 8 year old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) possesses, we know with certainty that the stakes are high. Steely eyed Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) who is a very overprotective father, recruits a friend named Lucas played with some grit by Joel Edgerton, to be an enforcer on the road as they hide out in seedy motels.
What starts out as your typical thriller, does evolve into something more poetic, although at times the plot feels slightly misguided. The boy’s otherwordly abilities soon draws the attention of law enforcement, a much more secretive government agency, and even a reclusive cult. David Wingos ambient but pulsing score helps paint an even better picture of a world where everything seems to be closing in. We are naturally going to make the comparisons to Spielberg’s E.T. or Close Encounters, which are obvious influences, but director Jeff Nichols (Mud) makes a point to keep his film simplified and much more down to earth.
We see glimpses of Altons gift and his curse, but Nichols restrains himself from making just another sci-fi spectacle and always focuses back on the theme of human desperation. This film in all its ethereal beauty, shows its effectiveness with straight forward dialogue from its characters and the quintessential thrill of the chase energy, but where I feel Midnight Special lacks is in depth and its inability to deliver the big punch. It’s almost as if Nichols can feel the creative pressure to deliver something on the same scale as Spielberg, without wanting to totally give in. We still can appreciate the grandiose ideas that the story is trying to embody.
Although probably deliberate, the film offers no backstory to these characters we are following, which makes us less emotionally atached. As the paranoia grows and Altons health deteriorates, the steady voice of reason seems to be his mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), who has been estranged from the boys life for two years.
She communicates poignantly with Roy and Lucas to figure out the best course of action, and is able to shed some light on the cult that is now helping law enforcement track Alton’s every move. There is a surprising twist as one particular agent played solemnly by Adam Driver, seems to empathize with this outcast family on the run. In only a matter of time an unbelievable chain of events will be set in motion.
As we follow the perilous adventures of this troubled young boy,eventually the premise of what we don’t see falls under its own weight. Nichols plays that number as long as the script will let him, ultimately preparing us for a less than inspiring payoff.
The lush landscape cinematography is the films visual backbone, but a few impressive special effects still doesn’t fill the void of a mystery that never seems to unfold and only grows deeper. Midnight Special succeeds on many levels, but also leaves us longing for something greater. B-
This article was translated in French by Anne-Cécile Baer Porter.