Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Film Review: Midnight Special (2016)

© Warner Bros. | Source: Little White Lies

USA; 111 min.; drama, sci-fi, mystery
Director: Jeff Nichols
Writing: Jeff Nichols
Cinematography: Jim Denault
Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Paul Sparks, Sam Shepard, Bill Camp, Scott Haze

“Dad. It’s okay.” – Alton Meyer 

Midnight Special is one of those films that really had me brimming with anticipation. Its writer and director Jeff Nichols, who has already given us a couple of cinematic gems, certainly is a talent to look out for in the future. He has a way with creating rich characters, atmospheric settings and beautiful homages to cultural greats. His second feature film, Take Shelter (2011), an intense, psychological piece about a family man haunted by visions and dreadful nightmares, put Nichols’ name on everybody’s lips back then. His follow-up Mud (2012), a Huckleberry-Finn-like coming-of-age adventure with a darker, more violent edge, manifested his status as an up-and-coming filmmaker indeed worthy of praise and, well, my anticipation.

Now, with Midnight Special, Nichols finds himself ready to take on the sci-fi genre and pay tribute to one of its pinnacle directors, Steven Spielberg. The film, it seems, sets the bar quite high and sadly, I have to admit, ends up being a small disappointment in my eyes. I know, I know, part of it is my own fault. As a huge fan of Nichol’s work, I probably got a bit overexcited, expecting genius and rainbows, cinematic ecstasy and unicorns all at once. What I got definitely wasn’t a bad film, don’t get me wrong. But knowing that Take Shelter is very well capable of delivering all those aforementioned things (minus the unicorns, maybe), I think that Midnight Special indeed could have been better.

Telling the story of Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), an eight-year-old boy with special powers, the film throws us right into the middle of the action. His biological father Roy (Michael Shannon) and the family friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) have abducted the wunderkind from his foster father, the leader of a religious cult, to save him from exploitation and restore him to a more secure place. So while the religious fanatics and the FBI are closing in, the trio unites with Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) and takes flight.

There’s a mystery at the heart of Midnight Special. What are Alton’s powers? Why does he have them? What can he do with them? Is he dangerous? Nichols refrains from giving clear answers and, thus, is able to maintain an aura of enduring mystique and wonder. His film is slow-burning, tense, dark and brooding, beautifully atmospheric in all its vagueness and presentiments of possible threats. It is accentuated by a haunting piano score and engaging, dimly lit visuals. And while the finale might be spelling out things a bit too explicitly, taking away from the general mystery, there’s still something about this film that stayed with me long after I had left the theatre.

However, what Midnight Special lacks is truly intriguing characters. Nichols, as a man perfectly capable of writing deep, down-to-earth, multi-layered roles, here mostly presents us with one-dimensional stereotypes. There’s the strong, caring father and the emotional, caring mother. There’s the reliable best buddy throwing in a bit of comic relief here and there. There’s the freaky cult leader and the nerdy FBI specialist. In a film that heavily relies on presenting interpersonal bonds, I’d expect those bonds to feel heartfelt and sincere. Midnight Special, at its core, is about parents making sacrifices for their child, about friends leaving their own safe haven to help out pals, about rationalists abandoning their disbelief in order to serve something greater. While Nichols has gathered an impressive cast to play out his characters, his minimalist dialogues hinder them from becoming round and relatable. Their respective relationships never appear real or deeply felt. I simply don’t care about them.

When it comes to underlying themes, Midnight Special is ambitious. Nichols has stated that his main motivation for writing the script came from expressing his feelings as a new father. Naturally, the film is about the lengths to which parents go to protect their children. It is a tale about letting go off your offspring and allow it to explore its own ways. However, the movie also forays into different directions. With a constant focus on outside surveillance and governmental control, the film appears quite topical and manages, despite its lack of interesting characters, to build another layer of intrigue besides the atmospheric execution.

Midnight Special is a visually enthralling road movie, aiming at up-to-date social and political discourses as well as a more human, family-related approach. It pays tribute to established genre conventions and yet also tries to tread on unique paths. It is strangely powerful and yet so void of actual heartfelt human emotions. It simply fails to make me connect with its main players. So, while the atmosphere drew me in completely, the flat and aloof characters spit me out cold. Next time, try and put in a unicorn somewhere? Maybe? No?


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