Midnight Special, the fourth film from popular indie director Jeff Nichols, feels like the offspring of Steven Spielberg’s two sci-fi classics, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The potential of that kind of mainstream story, from the heady director of Take Shelter and Mud, sounded like a fascinating and exciting contrast. And it is, for the most part.
Minor spoilers ahead…
Much like Nichols’ previous work, Midnight Special has a methodic pace, intense performances and a high probability of deep conversations afterwards. It follows an unusual young boy, who’s in a race against the bad guys to go somewhere mysterious. Think the last act of E.T., leading towards Devil’s Tower. And, at the beginning of the film, both that comparison and the mystery work incredibly well.
From frame one, Nichols drops us right in the middle of the action. Roy and Lucas (Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton) are on the run, apparently having abducted a boy. We don’t see it, we just hear about it. That boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is soon revealed to be Roy’s son, and they’re on the way to see his mother (Kristen Dunst). However Alton’s also linked to some kind of weird cult led by Sam Shepard — plus the FBI and NSA (including an analyst played by Adam Driver) are interested in him. What’s the deal with this boy? The film sinks its hooks into the viewer quickly.
The tale unfolds well from there, too. Several spectacular set pieces punctuate the film at just the right times. The blue grey, muted look of the early part of the movie slowly brightens as the characters change and evolve. Themes of purpose, care and parenthood permeate throughout. And the catchy, yet ominous piano driven score by David Wingo, gives everything a sense of urgency.
There comes a point though, about three quarters into the movie, where you realise several of the questions posed at the beginning of the film aren’t going to be answered. The story has moved past them, and it mostly works, especially if you’re familiar with Nichols’ past work. But the lingering curiosity starts to take away from the rest of the movie. You may forgive this omission, because where the film goes is quite beautiful and awe-inspiring — plus many of the biggest mysteries are, in fact, answered. But throughout the film, Nichols keeps things so true to the Spielbergian feel of the movies he’s drawing from, that when the film passes over even a few narrative questions, it’s a bit of a letdown.
Then, at the very very end, Nichols leaves the film on an all together different note. It ends with this notion that people are scared of what they don’t know and ultimately reject it.
This, of course, is true. We’re afraid of the unknown. But it feels like an odd coda for a movie that, until this point, had been much more emotional. Also, when you flip that idea on the movie itself, things get very weird. Does the movie purposefully leave those questions unanswered to make its point? Is the audience as bad as the bad guys in the movie, for wanting more out of the movie? Or was I just reading too much into it?
The fact those questions, for me, had overtaken small logistic and plot issues could almost be seen as a stroke of brilliance on Nichols’ behalf. But after sitting it with for a while, I found myself bummed not to be thinking about the fascinating character of Alton, what he means and where he’s from. Or how Roy’s actions define him as a father. Things like that shouldn’t be definitely answered in the film, leaving you with some morsels to discuss after. However, much of that context and complexity becomes overshadowed by its final moments and this question of the film’s reflexivity.
No genre movie can ever provide all the answers, nor should it. In fact, some of the best films give almost no answers whatsoever. But Nichols has made a movie that, from the very beginning, feels like it could, and maybe should, have those answers. To be sure, he’s also made a film that delivers a lot of them. But the whole thing is such a familiar-feeling adventure, that you’re sure everything is going to pay off. There’s the confused but inspired outsider played by Edgerton; the loveable, confident performance of Lieberher; the big-hearted agent played by Driver and Shannon’s conflict about how to deal with his son. Like Richard Dreyfuss said: “This means something.” Not to mention, it’s never boring, the story continues to surprise and the filmmaking works. But once Nichols starts to pull away from the expectations of the genre that he’s been referencing for most of the film, things get muddled.
Ultimately, Midnight Special is an enjoyable film with a strong science-fictional conceit, beautiful visuals and a satisfying story. The movie suffers from not quite being able to land what it’s trying to say, but the journey to get there is still worth taking. Just don’t expect to be as wowed as you might hope, by such a talented filmmaker and intriguing subject matter.
Midnight Special premieres in Australia 21 April.