He’s Not Like Us
Opening on a news report detailing a kidnapping, we witness the accused, Roy Tomlin [Shannon], in a hotel room; the windows covered with cardboard and gaffer tape. With him is concerned-looking accomplice, Lucas [Edgerton], who explains it’s nightfall and they should leave. Packing weapons into a duffel bag, Roy approaches an illuminated blanket and reveals Alton, a young boy wearing swimming goggles, reading a comic by torchlight. The group quickly depart in a beat-up car and speed into the night. Simultaneously an isolated cult/community run by Calvin Meyer [Sam Shepard] is raided by the FBI, who are looking for Alton. Calvin explains that the boy is somehow divine and goes into fits wherein he communicates in tongues but the authorities believe this boy is somehow gleaning sensitive government information and finding him is a matter of national security.
Midnight Special feels like a vanguard for nostalgic science fiction filmmaking, indicative of releases like Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Starman, Escape To Witch Mountain and ET; high-stakes fantastical developments as experienced by a small family group in the vast Midwest. Jeff Nichols’ oeuvre is an impressive one, a chain of critically acclaimed, clever, independent releases utilising subtle direction and gripping stories. Critics love his work but it seems audiences don’t often connect with them; more than likely due to his favouring of styles employed decades ago. At the centre of this film is a smart script that avoids almost all forms of exposition and allows the audience to come to their own conclusions about the characters and their story; a “what does it mean to you” tale. Building on his previous achievements, Nichols creates wonderful tension throughout, broken only by sudden moments of intensity. Working in harmony with this wonderful direction and editing is a pulsing unnerving score from David Wingo’s; I can’t stress enough the benefit of a simple theme built upon to bring audiences to the edge of their seats. To top it all off, Adam Stone’s cinematography is beautifully simplistic, proudly pushing a blurred vignette while maximizing light sources as much as possible for a film predominantly set in a car at night.
The first thing I noted about this film was the uncertainty as to when it was set. Based on all the clothing, kitchy decoration and dated technology, one would assume it’s a period piece but in fact it’s set in the modern day. I can’t tell if this was an effort to preserve the aesthetic of the films it was emulating or highlighting the divide between the noise and advancement of major cities and the featured locations and characters. This air of simplicity bleeds out from the script, to the set design and even to the performances themselves. Despite limited dialogue and a plot that effectively boils down to a chase from A to B, each central actor gives a compelling and nuanced performance. Long-time collaborator Shannon’s style perfectly fits Nichols’ writing and he conveys a great deal through simple anguished strains, bringing this emotionally stunted but wholly dedicated father to life. Similarly, Edgerton as Lucas sits in the role of driver and henchman but feels like the bridge between the cult-sheltered leads, the agenda driven intelligence agencies and the perplexed audience. Then you have Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst, Paul Sparks and Sam Shepard who all deliver able support, although one could say they take a distinct backseat to the leads. Which brings us to the incredibly talented Jaeden Lieberher. Following his success in St Vincent, Lieberher gives a satisfying performance as Alton, while side-stepping the pitfalls most young actors fall into, leaving them sounding overly cutesy or excessively precocious.
Negatively speaking, the film actually tells you how it’s going to end and for that reason may underwhelm a few. Furthermore, its air of ambiguity, while personally appreciated will alienate many people who go to the cinema expecting succinct closure from the story they’re watching. Midnight Special also rides that nostalgia train headfirst into the most predictable of stations and you can’t help but feel the lack of subversion is a little disappointing. As with all homages, sometimes you can inherit all the flaws and find yourself simply rehashing what has come before; albeit with grander visual effects. But in truth, these issues are perspective based and functionally speaking, this is a truly well-made film.
Considering how aptly it’s titled (paying homage to all those late low-budget, sci-fi releases televised in the middle of the night) Midnight Special is a hard sell to audiences hungry for big, obvious, explodey science fiction but extremely worthwhile cinema and definitely worth a watch. And if that wasn’t enough, one could argue that, at times, it’s a better Superman story than anything else currently being put out by Warner Bros.
8th April 2016
The Scene To Look Out For:
As the story slowly unveils more and more of itself it becomes increasingly difficult to pinpoint one specific standout moment. But in truth, the opening scenes are spot-on. The methodical movements, the eccentricities, the anxious expressions, the unspoken purpose that drives these men and their ward into the night, it’s frankly tantalising and begs the audience to see it through to conclusion.
Expanding on what I said earlier, Lieberher’s performance as Alton is great. Captivating, charming and a little daunting, he delivers an otherworldly performance without drifting into that weird automaton territory. An incredible achievement and one which the whole film essentially rides on. Not to mention the fact that the questions surrounding the character himself are engaging and fascinating.
“I’m an electrician, certified in two States. What do I know of such things?”
In A Few Words:
“Skilful, engrossing, riveting, cogent emotional storytelling”
Total Score: 4/5