midnight special

I kicked myself for missing this back when it was first released in March – I’d heard good stuff about it, and just the simple plotline I’d heard from a colleague intrigued me.  But I left it too late – it was gone within two weeks.  Fortunately, as I was browsing for something to review, I stumbled upon it last night, and was happy I did.

As usual, I won’t give any specific spoilers, but it would be hard to discuss it even in general terms without referring to the premise itself – and in all likelihood, if you’re reading this review you probably have some sense of what the movie is about.  In a nutshell, Midnight Special is about Roy, a father (Man of Steel’s Michael Shannon), and his friend, (Joel Edgerton, The Gift) on the run with Roy’s son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy who possesses undefined “supernatural” powers (but they manifest in spectacular fashion throughout the movie).  Both the US Government, and the religious sect that father and son recently belonged to want the boy back for their own reasons.  So, yes, this is a chase movie for the most part.  The plot itself, as such, is not particularly remarkable – you’ve seen it a number of times, and there’s nothing about the plot mechanics that try to present it any differently: protagonist has something that someone else wants, and the pursuers get closer until the inevitable confrontation.  Indeed, the arching plot is very similar to both John Carpenter’s Starman, and Spielberg’s E.T. – something that becomes more than apparent early on (assuming you’ve seen both movies, of course).

But where the movie sets itself apart is in the details.  Whether or not writer/director Jeff Nichols had either of these movies in mind when he wrote Midnight Special (and I have to say, I kind of hate the title) is impossible for me to say, not having read any interviews he’s done about the movie, but even if he did there’s no harm in doing that if one uses a basic plot in order to create something different.  Harbinger Down, a movie I reviewed recently, took so much from John Carpenter’s The Thing, it crossed over the line and became a work of plagiarism.  Midnight Special comes close enough to Starman and E.T. to evoke memories of both movies, but that was about it.  The strength of the movie is that it tells a story laden with mystery from the start, where it appears to be no more than an Amber Alert kidnap drama until heavily armed FBI agents raid a closed off religious community and question everyone, specifically about the boy who’s on the run with his dad.  It’s intriguing from the get-go.  I was immediately involved in the story because the opening act generated so many questions – questions that meant an awful lot to the characters.  To me, this is where I either get lost in a movie or decide early on it’s poor.  In my Cell review, I complained that the main characters barely react to the why of the story, instead simply following the dotted line of the plot.  If your characters don’t express that they’re truly affected by the unfolding events, if they simply react to things with actions and not emotions, you don’t have a “story”, you have “things happening”.  This is where Cell failed badly, but it’s where Midnight Special excels.  It isn’t just in the plot points, it’s in the dialogue and acting talent and direction.  I give great credit to Nichols here.  His dialogue is pinpoint, his direction allows the talent to work naturalistically – there are many subtle nuances in the direction that could easily be overlooked, but they add up to an easy, even-handed, but purposeful style.  And the acting is well above par mostly.  This is easily Shannon’s best performance (it’s uncanny that the older he gets, the more he looks like the late Richard Kiel), and Edgerton, who isn’t an actor I generally look for, is absolutely rock solid.  So too are both Kirsten Dunst and Adam Driver (though I should say that of the middle tier characters, Driver’s is the least interesting), whose roles expand well from the midpoint of act 2.  But I reserve special praise for Lieberher, who plays Alton with a quiet melancholy undercut by a buried seam of strength.  He looks like a young Kieran Culkin and though it’s hard to say he has real acting chops or that the character of Alton was tweaked to play to his strengths, the kid is very good indeed.  I enjoyed every scene he was in, especially when his character, like Dunst’s and Driver’s, is allowed to develop to further the plot.

I’d read that the movie is actually about the love of a father for his son, but while that’s undeniably the key plot driver, the theme wasn’t so huge that it controlled my perception of the movie.  At the end of the day, it’s a highly satisfying, well-paced chase movie with a beating heart and strong interconnected characters.  I really liked much of it – and it’s funny that in one of the scenes, Alton, reading a Superman comic from John Byrne’s run in the 80s asks what Kryptonite is, and Shannon (who played General Zod in Man of Steel), complains about the choice of reading material.  There’s also a case to be made that the story contains similarities to that of Christ, but I’ll leave that up to others to decide.

Not that this is Nichols’ fault, per se, but while the major events of act 3 are so nicely unexpected, they invite immediate comparisons to a recent movie (I reviewed it, but can’t tell you which one), and having seen that movie I was very distracted by it.  It would have had far more power if I hadn’t seen that concept before in the recent past.  Hollywood consistently offers side by side similarities in plot or image or theme on a regular basis, and they’re just unfortunate coincidences.  I don’t believe Nichols had that other movie in mind when he wrote Midnight Special, I just wish I had seen this one first.

This is a really good little movie – highly recommended.


© Andrew Hope, 2016

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