Midnight Special movie full length review - A Successful Blending of Genres and Great Performances.
Though Jeff Nichols has delivered to well received films in the forms of Take Shelter and Mud, Midnight Special marks the first time that the writer/director has helmed a studio production with a budget that exceeds $10million.
In short, this may prove to be make or break for the talented young filmmaker and luckily, he's crafted one of the best films of 2016 that deserves all of your attention.
Though the storyline within Midnight Special may be familiar (government seeks to capture an individual with extraordinary powers believing them to be a weapon) it's presentation is different to any previous incarnations seen on screen. While superhero films that feature a premise such as this usually utilise it as a side story amongst the action set pieces, Nichols makes it the entire focus of his film, creating a human drama that is driven by it's characters. At the centre of the film is father, Roy (Michael Shannon), and his son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy that has the ability to intercept and verbally broadcast satellite signals, emit beams of light from his eyes, and manipulate objects with his mind.
Both of the film's leads do a fantastic job throughout, with Michael Shannon in particular delivering a memorable performance. Having proved himself to be a powerhouse on screen in recent years with his commanding presence, Shannon's role in Midnight Special isn't as flashy as some of his other work, yet it's the delicate nature of it that makes him standout. With a glare that could stop a charging rhinoceros, he's able to balance his performance between desperation and ruthlessness perfectly, silently pondering his next move in one scene and urging his friend to shoot a police officer by the side of the road in the next. Jaeden Liberher also deserves his fair share of praise thanks to his extremely mature outing as Alton which shows the young actor's ability to hold his own against established character actors in any given scene as his character is tormented by his powers. Another prominent figure in the film is Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a state trooper and Roy's friend who agrees to help the two on their journey. Joel Edgerton continues to make interesting choices in his career after his own turn as a writer/director in The Gift and though his performance as Lucas requires more restraint than some of his previous roles, it remains just as impressive.
In order for these performances to work, however, the story in which they feature has to be equally as strong and thankfully, Nichols has yet again showcased his talents as a filmmaker. Offering a mystery to audiences from the very start, he allows the story to unfold through the interactions of it's characters, revealing key plot points through dialogue that feels natural rather than being filled with exposition. Nichols's ability to create tension is also on show once again following the swamp shootout in Mud, this time, however, it's in a completely different environment as an innocent sunrise aims to get hearts racing and succeeds. Scenes such as this and a shower of satellite debris striking a petrol station make Midnight Special not just a human drama but also a thriller, while it's touching climax manages to incorporate elements of sci-fi that wouldn't feel out of place in some of Spielberg's best work. Blending genres together is never an easy task, yet Nichols manages to do it not only successfully here, but also better than most directors could ever hope to achieve.
There are, unfortunately, several weak points within the film and while some of it's strongest aspects are it's three lead characters, it's the secondary ones that cause it to falter in places. Kirsten Dunst feels out of place, popping up in the latter half of the film as Alton's mother, and her character never receives full development after she is introduced with her reasons for being excommunicated from the cult being alluded to yet never fully explored. Similarly, Adam Driver is criminally underused as FBI specialist Paul Sevier following his scene stealing performance in The Force Awakens. Never able to fully delve into the character, Driver does his best with the material and manages to provide several moments of comic relief as an agent out of his depth.
Elsewhere, some elements of the plot introduced at the beginning of the film are abandoned as the climax approaches, particularly those that revolve around Alton being seen as a 'saviour' by the cult he belonged to. Interesting concepts are mentioned by members during FBI interviews ? Alton's verbal broadcasts of satellite signals providing scripture for the cult being one of them ? yet during the latter half of the film, the group completely disappear, along with any beliefs that Alton was a Christ-like figure. Had these religious undertones featured prominently throughout the story and been offered a fitting conclusion, there may have been even more interesting material to find in the film, however, the focus is placed squarely upon the central characters as it draws to a close and in no way is that a disappointment.
Despite a few minor flaws, Midnight Special proves to be one of the best films of 2016 so far thanks to strong performances from it's two leads and an engaging story that successfully blends genres. Jeff Nichols continues to grow as both a writer and a director and if this is anything to go by, his next feature Loving should be very special indeed.