Science-fiction is a wonderful thing. The genre is inherently armed with the power to create awe-inspiring, eye-popping, surrealist worlds - often laced with acid realism. Perhaps for the medium to truly succeed, it must effectively combine these two elements; it must engross us in its own world whilst subtly reminding us of our own in a profound, provocative or meaningful way. Midnight Special achieves the latter with aplomb, affecting even I, who cannot directly relate to it, with the emotional apex of its central premise. Unfortunately, a script that aims for refinement and overshoots its mark significantly obstructs interaction with the unique context writer/director Jeff Nichols’ fourth feature finds itself in.
Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) is an 8-year-old who has inspired his own religion on a Texas ranch, referred to solely as ‘The Ranch’, because of his extraordinary powers. While the extent of his supernatural potency is left unquantified, it is apparent he has a metaphysical connection with technology. His father, Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon), aided by old friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), is determined to do right by Alton, who has identified a time and place of unknown significance through his abilities. Standing in their way is The Ranch, lead by Sam Shepard’s quasi-priest, and the FBI with bright, young NSA agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) on their side.
"Luckily for the burgeoning director, his handling of actors, particularly his frequent collaborator Shannon, is only improving"
Having established himself as resident indie-darling of the American south over the past few years, Jeff Nichols is a talent showing immense promise for the future. Midnight Special, however, may prove a blip in his reputation as a writer when retrospect cracks its whip over the film. A full-blown flaying may not be fair, but Nichols noticeably loses his spell over minimalist dialogue whilst trying to splice it with science-fiction, misjudging the degree to which his world must be explained in order to suspend disbelief within an audience. When sci-fi takes a back seat to the drama and is not pronounced enough in its own right, it is so very easy to enter B-movie territory. Nichols flies close to the sun, just avoiding the lick of a solar flare.
Luckily for the burgeoning director, his handling of actors, particularly his frequent collaborator Shannon, is only improving. Shannon, Edgerton and Dunst are all wonderful in this film, their unwavering stoicism matching the stripped-back dialogue amiably. Watching them endeavour through a story of coming to terms with inevitable loss is an absolute pleasure, that message channeling strength from the calibre of actor conveying it. At the risk of sounding absurd, I contest that I can pinpoint each emotional pivot in my mind just by the way each of the trio respond to their circumstances with their eyes. It is a beautiful way to tell drama, if you have the talent at your disposal to pull it off.
Midnight Special is an uneven genre-mash with plenty to enjoy, but it doesn’t quite come off as well as it should. Do not be surprised if Jeff Nichols bounces right back, though.
More like this: Take Shelter (2011)