Midnight Special (2016)
dir. Jeff Nichols
written by: Jeff Nichols
starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunset, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver
2.75 out of 4 stars
When I first began baking, I was tasked with creating a spiced pumpkin roll for a family Christmas party. I whisked the dry ingredients from scratch, whipped together a sweet cream cheese filling, and scooped pumpkin pie filling from a can like Martha Stewart disemboweling a chicken (with gusto and looking damn good covered in goop). Despite all the parts separately delicious, a flawed combination concocted more of a loaf than a roll; tasted fine but generally a mess. This is how I felt about American director Jeff Nichols’ latest film Midnight Special.
A combination of scifi childhood adventure and Texas crime drama, we follow a father and son on the run following the discovery of the son’s special powers. The film wastes no time with the action: we find Roy, the biological father of gifted Alton Meyer, the object of a religious cult’s obsession, has “kidnapped” his son from his adoptive father Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard, gravel voiced and devious). They are on the run from The Ranch who wants their prophet returned and the government whose secrets Alton is unintentionally revealing. Joined by Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and Alton’s mother Sarah Tomlin (Kirsten Dunst), they race to a location designated by their son as his powers unravel around them.
Most areas of this movie worked when examined separately. The tone, darkly bucolic much like Nichols’ previous movies Take Shelter and Mud, lets the movie glide through their roadtrip much like gravel against a fallen motorcyclist–exciting but jarring. The scenes are incessantly tense, allowing jumps to come naturally as the boy’s emerging powers rip the family’s worldview apart.
The acting was underplayed. Very natural, quiet roles were delivered by all, punctuated by some excessive silences. Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton are two emerging talents who can deliver convincing, gruff country men performances. Edgerton, so different than in the recently reviewed Kinky Boots, seems unsure as to why he is on this trip, and this makes the character empathetic and likable. Kirsten Dunst surprises with an internally fierce and pained but outwardly stoic performance. She lives in her eyes, no matter what the rest of her face is doing; this is a lovely addition to Melancholia Dunset. Jaeden Lieberher, following an impressive performance in St Vincent, avoids hysterics in a “gifted child” role that easily would have been over-the-top in many other directors’ hands.
The issue with this movie appears to be the pacing. We are rushed, and then we slow rapidly. There’s far too much time spent taping cardboard to the windows and too little dialogue and story development to back it up. Plots points are placed in the billiards rack in the opening credits. The director fires his cue ball and explodes the story with so many options. Soon the balls slow, a few disappear, and we’re left with a progression full of corner-touching balls. The intriguing bits are too few and far between to make one desire to rewatch the movie, and it’s ultimately disappointing with a surprisingly sound wrapup. Not unlike my failed pumpkin roll, it all seemed so good until we find the finished product with too much going on and no real form. It isn’t disliked, and it’s somewhat pleasing. It is just somewhat of a mess.