It really frustrates me to write that I was, ultimately, left disappointed by Midnight Special. Especially since its opening forty-five minutes had me so entranced that I had already begun to mentally draw up plans for a Jeff Nichols-based cult.
Much like Jeff Nichols’ previous films Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud, Midnight Special unravels in a striking but composed manner, with its minimalist plot and the backstories of its character being mostly withheld from the audience. At first, this just pulls you in closer, especially since the cast of Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Kirsten Dunst, and Adam Driver are each exemplary in their roles, hooking us with their layered performances, giving us just a taste of characterization while at the same time upping the stakes.
As per usual, especially in a Jeff Nichols film, Michael Shannon steals every single frame, though. Whenever Shannon is on screen, he oozes a potent mixture of towering and mesmerizing, and he’s able to drive Midnight Special on even when the film is ostentatiously ambiguous.
In Midnight Special, Michael Shannon plays Roy, a father so desperate to protect his uniquely gifted eight-year-old son Alton (Jaeden Liberher) that the press are reporting he’s kidnapped him. Because of Alton’s power, both the leader of a religious sect Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) and the government, led by Adam Driver’s Paul Sevier, are after him. But, alongside their accomplice Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and Roy’s ex-wife, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), they head to a secret location, all while Alton gets sicker and sicker.
Jeff Nichols delightfully toys with the audience at the start of Midnight Special, as he confidently feeds us information that propels and buoys the narrative, all of which comes at just the right time. It also comes across as a sweet-natured but visceral love-child of Steven Speilberg (specifically Duel and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind) and John Carpenter (Starman). A concoction that movie-goers everywhere can appreciate.
But it’s still enthused with the edge and tension that has come to define Jeff Nichols’ work, and make him one of cinema’s finest subversive directors of the modern era. And even though I wasn’t completely charmed by Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols still deserves praise for creating such an original and unique sci-fi road movie that embraces while at the same time defying genre. I even still hope that he continues with hypnotic brand of storytelling. It’s just a pity that it didn’t, ultimately, fully coagulate with this story.
Midnight Special isn’t just a platform for Jeff Nichols and his cast to show off their enviable talents. Because cinematographer Adam Stone creates mood and tension through his lighting and set-ups, editor Julie Monroe allows scenes to grow and find their emotion without you begging for a cut, and David Wingo’s music is a delightful mixture of ominous and melodic.
Midnight Special doesn’t force feed you answers, treating its audience with respect by asking them to try and piece the film together and complete the puzzle themselves -- a ploy that allows the mystery and apprehension to exacerbate. The problem is the pieces don’t appear to all be there, or are just too difficult to find. And as the wait for the film to kick into gear becomes longer and more excruciating, Midnight Special derails. The lack of clarity and substance to the dynamics, relationships and characters chisel away at the intrigue and emotion of the performances, which have previously been keeping Midnight Special enthralling.
In fact, even before Midnight Special’s final sequence, which leaves more annoying questions than fulfilling answers, the film sags. Unfortunately, the conclusion does nothing to repair the feeling of goodwill Midnight Special’s beguiling opening had created. It leaves you with a sour unsatisfactory feeling, and you’re can’t help but consider what could have been rather than reveling in the splendor that, 45 minutes earlier, Midnight Special had been providing in droves. An endearing, beautiful, partly entrancing waste.