Film review: MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, from ‘Built For Speed’

Midnight Special, the latest film from Mud and Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols concerns a young boy with what appears to be psychic powers. While watching this film audience members will feel like they have psychic powers due to the strange sensation they will experience of having seen much of this film before. To reveal which films Midnight Special resembles would be an instant spoiler, suffice to say they are a mix of major and more obscure science fiction movies from the 70’s and 80’s.

Despite referencing some seminal films and despite a superb cast that includes Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton and Adam Driver, Midnight Special never quite grips the audience the way it should. The main problem is that this tale of a strange young boy Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) and his father Roy’s (Michael Shannon) flight across the American South from religious cult members and the FBI is too slow moving. The central mystery which has us asking: who is Alton Meyer, what is the basis of the unusual powers that emanate from his glowing eyes and why is the government hunting him, keeps us intrigued but with the film crawling along at such a slothful pace it’s difficult for audience attention not to drift.

Although the pace is languid, the film is still punctuated with a few thrilling moments such as the fiery spectacle of satellites crashing to earth like a meteor storm and some visually startling sequences that hint at Alton’s origins.

Nichols’ muse Michael Shannon is excellent as always as he once again deftly negotiates that fine line between oddball and everyman. Joel Edgerton is impressive as Lucas, Roy’s grumpy taciturn childhood friend who aids Roy in absconding with Alton. Kirsten Dunst, who appears quite late in the film, gives Alton’s mother Sarah an affecting mix of fragility and determination. Adam Driver also appears as the smug young NSA investigator Sevier who amusingly annoys the uptight middle-aged CIA agents he works with. Driver is typically charismatic even though we keep hearing Kylo Ren whenever he speaks. While the cast are fine within the context of the material they have been given, the script doesn’t give them quite enough opportunity to connect emotionally with us and the film leaves us with a slightly empty feeling.

Also, the film doesn’t sufficiently develop certain story threads. This is particularly evident in the sub-plot involving the religious cult. We never learn quite as much as we’d like to about them and despite a magnetic performance from Sam Sheppard as their leader, the cult strangely fade out of the film.

Jeff Nichols has fashioned a typically downbeat atmosphere for Midnight Special, employing grainy cinematography and grim characters mostly filmed in low light. It’s impressively moody but with the patchy script it often seems more like an exercise in style than compelling story telling.

There’s enough impressive film-making to recommend Midnight Special to sci-fi fans and certainly fans of the cast members but there’s a nagging sense that there’s a few pieces missing from this film.

Nick’s rating: ***.

Genre: Science fiction/ drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Jeff Nichols.

Release date: 21st March 2016.

Running time: 112 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.



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