“Ok, so where do we start?”
Remember the little boy’s story in Looper? Well, Midnight Special is a little bit like that; minus the time-travel, crossed time-lines or Bruce Willis impressions, of course. Jeff Nichols drives us to a world that is essentially our own, where things not of our own occur.
This is where Midnight Special sets itself apart. The conscious decision to downplay the science-fiction, hiding it within reality, means Nichol’s feature cannot be adequately summed up in a couple of sentences. It is in-part a chase movie, a science-fiction piece and hark to the past, but I was most taken by Midnight Special because, at it’s core, it is a father and son film.
A father is torn apart by not knowing why his son is special, whilst knowing that he will be persecuted for it. This father, as stone-faced and silent as Shannon is for large swathes, thinks of nothing but his son’s safety and will put his own life and the lives of others behind that of his son. This is a real, heartfelt, human story, elevated by its more extraordinary moments. But, like the story, Midnight Special ensures these moments don’t overwhelm that around it. Midnight Special is at times a truly beautiful film, almost like Sicario, taking its beauty through the use of light and dark and cinematographic grace rather than generated illusion.
This earthly feel helps create a legitimate tension seldom seen in science-fiction. There is a distinct quietness to Midnight Special. It is vague in ample measure, allowing airs to replace conversations, allowing David Wingo’s ethereal theme to penetrate and punctuate the narrative, building the strain and pushing you closer to the edge of your seat.
This is a tension that also owes a lot to the measured performance by Michael Shannon. Like the picture as a whole, Shannon is undramatic. He underacts almost every scene, just as a strong father may in front of his child, yet panics, again in an understated manner, when danger surrounds his son. Shannon drives the film onward, both literally and figuratively, whilst also facilitating more lively performances from those around him. Kirsten Dunst and Joel Edgerton act in different stages of acceptance; Dunst acting as the heartfelt, yet secondary emotional centre, whilst Edgerton’s path to realisation and trust mirrors that of the audience.
And like Edgerton, by the last third, all trust is surrendered to Midnight Special. The other-worldly elements become more prevalent as the narrative progresses, but by the time they truly arrive, you are totally sold. These unearthly elements are nothing revolutionary, but Nichols is very aware of the film’s past. Midnight Special wears its history like a badge of honour, up-front and in centre, refraining from nodding to a select few but clearly referencing those that have inspired it. There is a Close Encounters feel and ties to more modern films, such as Looper and Tomorrowland, can also be clearly felt.
Yet, this barely detracts from the excellence of the spectacle. Like Monsters and others before it, the extraordinary is thickly-framed by the tangible, creating a semi-fictional world that shows how great small-budget science-fiction can be. It is right to say that Midnight Special lives up to it’s name. It is a very special achievement.
Header courtesy of UNCSA.