Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher
Spoilers Within: Yes
Originally posted 26th June 2016 on Letterboxd.
There’s been a fair bit of ambivalence about Jeff Nichols’ fourth film, with people saying that it lacks character, its sci-fi elements are weak, or it’s slow with very little resolve, and while none of those are strictly untrue, they’re all the exact reasons why I like it.
Firstly, the science fiction element is on the perfect level of plausible, and drip-fed in a way that many have said is slow, but I say is subtle and restrained. Nichols is clearly very confident in his own story, and by slowly revealing the core mystery whilst enveloping it in an emotional journey, he’s created a sci-fi film that I’ll happily watch again and again.
Secondly, the restrained nature of the story is thoroughly deliberate and ubiquitously well-executed throughout. From Lucas’ (Joel Edgerton) backstory reveal to the initial consequences of Alton’s powers, via teased car chases, it relies on subtleties of the actors and the situations to hold your interest. Nicols’ screenplay is intelligent enough to allow engagement with the characters without getting bogged down in the complexities of the mathematics or science. This is particularly clear in scenes such as when Sevier (Adam Driver) highlights numbers and coordinates on a whiteboard: in that moment, it’s baffling and slightly complicated, but the relevance develops a scene or two down the line when the next piece of the puzzle is given.
The cinematography is absolutely fantastic; looking as though every scene was shot with in situ lighting either as the sun rises over a field, or a car light shines through trees at night, it all looks natural. I was sure I read that this approach to lighting was deliberate, but if it wasn’t, the technique used to make it look this authentic is also something to be impressed by. Furthermore, that drone shot over the woodlands was breathtaking, and something I wished I’d have seen on the big screen. Pair this with Jeff Wingo’s perfect soundtrack and at the very least Midnight Special is an audio and visual treat.
Fortunately, that isn’t the least of it. The entire cast, from Lieberher to Dunst, to Paul Sparks and Sam Shepherd, are uniformly excellent. No scenery chewing nor timidity; just perfectly balanced characters whose story is told without too much interference to the core characters, all the while fitting into the overall narrative flawlessly. In any other film, the cult would have been painted broadly: identifying them as the chaotic evil that countless films do, and the FBI would have been the villainous organisation that would stop at nothing to destroy Alton. Whilst the latter are the main antagonist to Alton’s journey, their intentions are mostly pure: they were dealing with an entity that brought a satellite crashing down to Earth and they wanted to understand his powers; there was no point where they treated him as an evil force, but rather an unexplained one. The clear villains – if there has to be one – were the cult’s henchmen Levi and Doak (Bill Camp and Scott Haze), and even still their intentions were stated from the higher-ups of the cult, and never once straying into outright horror (the scene in which they visit Dunst’s mother for information is another indicator of the restraint on display).
Midnight Special will no doubt bore and frustrate viewers who want a clear-cut science fiction tale with set-piece after set-piece, but for the rest of us, it’s a starkly original picture that harks back to the golden era of understated sci-fi spectacle.