Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Violence and Action
Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Written by: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Sam Shepard & Jaeden Lieberher
After two critically praised down-to-earth dramas and one intense dark thriller, indie filmmaker Jeff Nichols has moved onto stranger territory with MIDNIGHT SPECIAL. Clearly paying homage to early Spielberg and Carpenter, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is a science-fiction slow-burn that has interesting ideas and good performances, but never fully melds either of these qualities together into an emotionally involving story. The film is worth a look for fans of old-school less-is-more science fiction, but will likely be a one-and-done sort of viewing.
The opening minutes reveal two men and a small child hiding out in a hotel room: eight-year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), Roy (Alton’s father, played by Michael Shannon), and Lucas (Alton’s friend, played by Joel Edgerton). Their destination is unknown to us, but what we do know is they are on the run. You see, Alton isn’t like other children. He has abilities that have caused some to worship him and others to see him as a potential weapon. It’s up to Roy and Lucas to keep Alton out of the hands of creepy cult members and the federal government…while heading towards an unknown destination for an unspecified reason. I’m being intentionally vague, much like the first half of this film.
MIDNIGHT SPECIAL has a lot of cool ideas and remarkable visuals, but these never really reach their full potential as the film is mysterious to a fault. It’s apparent that director/writer Jeff Nichols didn’t want to give away too many details during the first half of this film. This less-is-more approach is admirable and works to an extent. We are immediately sucked into the chase and have to use our imagination to figure certain things out with clues that are slowly given to us throughout the film’s second half. Nichols’ restraint is also a negative as his glacial pacing makes for dull stretches of the story that were too damn vague and underdeveloped. The running time is almost two hours and probably could have been tightened up or expanded with a better screenplay. The combination of a half-baked script and uneven pacing cause the movie to keep the viewer at a noticeable distance from the on-screen happenings.
In the area of performances, the big name cast members are doing their damndest to elevate the underdeveloped dramatic-supernatural material. Taking the lead is Michael Shannon as Roy, who plays his character as a loving father who would do anything for his son…despite his child’s dangerous powers. Joel Edgerton is enjoyable as Lucas and provides some unexpected comic relief. I was shocked to see that Kristen Dunst is in this film, because the marketing hasn’t really given her the time of day. Usually, I’m not a fan of Dunst, but she is actually convincing as one of Alton’s former followers turned protectors. These three well-known adult performers are joined by Jaeden Lieberher (who was previously seen in ST. VINCENT) as the mysterious Alton, who sells his young character as a weird kid who remains innocent in spite of his dangerous superhuman abilities.
On the opposing side of things, we get an unusual antagonist in NSA analyst-turned-investigator Paul Sevier (played by Adam Driver, who was recently evil in THE FORCE AWAKENS). Driver makes for a bit of mousey bad guy and has unexpected developments as the film goes on. Sam Shepard has a disappointingly short appearance as cult leader Calvin Meyer (who was definitely inspired by Fred Phelps, as evidenced by his congregation’s hairstyles and outfits). Shepard is built up to an intense antagonist, but the threat of the cult actually manifests itself through two of his henchmen (who are only given a handful of brief scenes). Though this story doesn’t necessarily need a main villain, the screenplay might have done better to develop these threats a bit more.
MIDNIGHT SPECIAL hooked me enough to keep me interested in where things were going, even when the slow pace came dangerously close to boring me. The performances definitely elevate this film above its shaky screenplay, which has many good ideas that never quite satisfyingly come together. This is a slight disappointment for Jeff Nichols, whose track record has been very solid up to this point, but he’ll return again with an awards season drama in November. Overall, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is worth a look for sci-fi junkies and indie film fans, but it’s a one-and-done experience that wouldn’t necessarily be any less impressive on the small screen.