Read a sentence for the first time, and you’ll find it can be exhilarating. Much of the fun comes from not knowing where
it may go… or
WhAt iT mAy Do.
Quite often, what it will lead to isn’t overly jaw-dropping. But it’s the not knowing that proves the best part, as the possibilities your brain conjures will inevitably prove superior to the one solution that will present itself.
Perhaps this train of thought is more applicable to film. Better still, it’s more applicable to Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols’ fourth directorial effort, and his first since 2012’s criminally underrated Mud.
So much of the thrill in Midnight Special comes from not knowing, from trying to piece together the situation young Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) finds himself in, as a state-wide chase ensues for his ‘captors’ Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton).
Every brief glimpse of Alton’s mysterious abilities (this film is unmistakably sci-fi) is brief enough to keep you guessing.
What’s disappointing (and perhaps destined to be so) is the revelation (it won’t be detailed here) at the end of the second act. It turns a promising character drama into a generic and underwhelming sci-fi film, and the ambiguity so great in the first two acts becomes replaced by ambiguity of the worst kind, as plot hole upon plot hole begins to appear as the stakes get higher and the plot becomes increasingly far-fetched.
What propels the film in the first two acts, and saves it from being a complete train-wreck in the last, are the main characters.
Nichols has always been a superb director of character drama (Mud a perfect example), and when combined with the performances of Michael Shannon and Jaeden Lieberher, it provides beautifully restrained moments. Shannon solidifies his spot as one of Hollywood’s best expression actors, with moments of slight facial twitches and movements telling more than 100 lines of dialogue ever could.
Similarly, Lieberher continues to impress following a great turn alongside Bill Murray in 2014’s St. Vincent. It may be possible to count on one hand the number of lines he has in Midnight Special, but he delivers them near-perfectly, and does so much with his eyes (figuratively and literally), even when they’re behind goggles for a lot of the film (another mystery presented at the film’s outset).
Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst and Adam Driver each have a moment or two to step up and they do, which at least gives some form of emotional weight to the third act.
The biggest issue with the film is it showed too much once it declared its hand. With a $23 million budget, it was always going to struggle bringing to life the profound vision alluded to throughout the film and realized in the third act. It would’ve been so much more powerful if, in a film so wonderfully restrained for the most part, we are left with only the characters’ facial expressions to go on (which as I stressed before were fantastic), rather than a flurry of underwhelming shots failing to do justice to what’s been described for so much of the film.
In the end, perhaps the main gripe many will have with the film is, with the title Midnight Special, Nichols squanders a fantastic slow-burn with the revelation there’s nothing truly special about this film at all.
Midnight Special (M – for science fiction themes and violence)
Rating – 6/10
Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver
Midnight Special is now showing in Australia, and screens at:
VIC — Cinema Nova, Sun Yarraville, Palace Westgarth, Rivoli, Jam Factory and Dendy Brighton.
NSW — Palace Norton Street, Ritz Randwick, Dendy Newtown and Opera Quays.
QLD — Dendy Portside, Palace Centro and Barracks.
SA — Palace Nova East End.