"Good people die every day believing in things."
Science fiction movies were great in the 1980s weren’t they? Classics from Spielberg, Cameron and Carpenter permeated the decade with tales of extra-terrestrials and their interactions with mankind. There’s a reason why those films are treasured the way they are, it’s because despite their alien origins there is something so distinctly … human about them. They weaved relatable and poignant issues through their plots to evoke emotions from the audiences. The same can be said for Jeff Nichol’s latest directorial effort ‘Midnight Special’.
Upon discovering that his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) has otherworldly powers, Roy Meyers (Michael Shannon) is forced to go on the run with his son as federal agents come looking for him and a radical religious commune.
‘Midnight Special’ is not a film about aliens or superpowers. It’s about the relationship between a father and son, their connection and the hidden force that unites them. Too frequently Hollywood convinces itself that if audiences don’t fully understand what they are seeing they will reject it. One of the best things ‘Midnight Special’ does is respect our intelligence and does so with such confidence that you have to admire it.
But I did a lot more than admire it, I adored the film. For starters it’s so superbly crafted, with Nichols balancing his intimate moments with massive spectacle. For such a low budget film there are impressive visual effects on display here and they are used to create some fairly spectacular action sequences including one awe-inspiring moment in which a military satellite is pulled out of orbit to come crashing down onto a petrol station.
But the film’s true strong point lies in its humanity. It taps into a relationship that relies on character and explains itself through emotion rather than narrative. It’s the unanswerable questions throughout the film that keep us entranced. You can go along with this road trip and try to decipher each little detail or just try to look at the big picture. It’s under Nichols’ direction that was take this unique journey and though one could assume that the lack of ultimate answers may prove frustrating I was never in doubt that an even more interesting mystery lay just around the corner. As the film poses an answer to one question it introduces us to another.
It may be somewhat of a slow burn but Nichols puts his directorial talents to good use as he injects such a sense of energy into every scene. There’s mystery, intrigue and tension and most importantly, emotion. Instead of trying to move the narrative forwards the film devotes itself to forming a connection with each character and providing us with an insight into their drive and motivation. They never present anything directly to the viewers they just act out their story and it’s down to the viewer to keep up. ‘Midnight Special’ also stands as a testament to visual storytelling as large sections of the film go virtually dialogue free but it never bothered me because the images are spectacular, emotive, haunting and always fascinating. Nichols understands what a viewer takes away from a great film and how best to apply that to his own work.
But Nichols is not alone and the appliances that assemble his film are just as impressive. The performances are all fantastic. Michael Shannon displays such a drive and determination for his mission, you instantly feel the connection between him and his son. The combination of Shannon and Lieberher make a majority of the film’s heart. Joel Edgerton plays his morally motivated ally with equal conviction, as does Adam Driver as an empathetic NSA investigator. The cinematography of Adam Stone almost makes the landscape another character, and the score by David Wingo only propels the emotional resonance even further.
Great films are often divisive and I suspect many people will leave ‘Midnight Special’ somewhat unsatisfied. There is a lot of ambiguity to it, but for me that was where it excelled. Ambiguity doesn’t always work for movies (it’s so easy to mistake it for unresolvedness) but when you are dealing with something as spiritual and atmospheric as ‘Midnight Special’ you find yourself teetering between craving for answers and acknowledging what has already transgressed on screen. Are Alton’s powers a metaphor for anything? Is this a contemplative view of how society reacts to phenomenon’s? Or is it a meditation on parenthood? It could be none of them or all them.
A modern science fiction classic.