Review: Midnight Special
PLOT: A man and his young son - who possesses special powers - are on the run from those who may seek to take advantage of the boy and his gifts.
REVIEW: There is a quiet intensity in the new film from writer/director Jeff Nichols. You could easily simplify it and call it a car chase film, but really, there is so much more. It is a brilliantly executed examination of a father and son relationship. As a science fiction feature, it is just as satisfying. There is a respect given to the audience to dig deeper into the events at hand. While I generally don’t share my own personal relationship with a film in a review, I am not afraid to say that this connected with me deeply. Perhaps it was the father and son aspect, but either way, this is one film I won’t soon forget.
Here is where it gets tricky. Walking in I knew nothing about this, and that is the way you should see it. The film tells the story of Roy (Michael Shannon) and his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). The two, along with a friend named Lucas (Joel Edgerton), are on the run. Alton is charmed with special powers but we aren’t told much more than that early on. Who they are running from and why, I’d rather not go into detail. However, the FBI is involved, as is a religious group led by a man named Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard). Again, you could call this a car chase film, but that is really secondary to what transpires in the just under two hour feature.
Michael Shannon is a marvel of an actor. And it is refreshing to see him play a character like Roy. When we first meet Roy and Lucas, we are unsure as to why they are on the run, but we do know that people are looking for Alton. The relationship between the three is absolutely powerful. And with Lucas, Edgerton is fantastic, ably helping to carry the film. Nichols has had a terrific relationship with Shannon - the actor has appeared in all four of his features - and it is so important for that to work here. The bond between the three is later strengthened by Kirsten Dunst, an actress who has proven to be especially strong in smaller character driven films.
After the success of STAR WARS: EPISODE VII - THE FORCE AWAKENS, it was nice to see Adam Driver in this particular story. As one of the many searching for Roy and Alton, his fascination with the boy and what is happening around him is very believable. Also quite good is Sam Shepard as the previously mentioned leader of a church. It is role that could have been a stereotype in a film like this, but the character is far better written and performed than that. Even the smaller players are noteworthy. This includes Bill Camp and Scott Haze as disciples of Meyer, and Paul Sparks as Agent Miller of the FBI. In fact, there really isn’t a wrong note performance wise at all.
Like many modern filmmakers, Nichols has clearly been inspired by those before him. You could find a little Spielberg, Kubrick and Carpenter in this taut thriller. Thankfully, he is able to create his own voice in the way he tells it. When you say car chase flick, you might think that this is heavy on action but that is not necessarily the case. There is a build that raises the stakes especially high, but there is a slow burn quality to it as well. Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Adam Stone, the use of shadows and light is very important, especially as they reveal the secrets Roy, Lucas and even Alton are trying to understand. Considering much of the film takes place at night or in darkness, there is a particularly haunting quality throughout visually speaking.
In regards to John Carpenter, one of the most memorable things about MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is the score itself. Composer David Wingo echoes Carpenter’s work slightly, with a similar build to the classic score from THE FOG - arguably one of Carpenter’s best. The way the music layers onto each progression, until the film’s stunning conclusion, it is a character unto itself. All of this works together to create an undeniably compelling experience.
MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is a revelation. It may sound like the filmmaker borrows heavily from others, but believe me, this is still absolutely fresh. It is compelling and ultimately it carries a huge emotional impact. Perhaps some viewers may want more answers than the film gives, and that is fine, but the questions that remain seem to be far more meaningful without a straight forward explanation. As a movie that lends itself well to discussion, it is also one that would be hard to compare to Nichols’ earlier resume. That being said, everything here works. The score, the performances, the look and the structure are all fantastic. I loved this movie and everything it has to say.
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