Midnight Special Review

Posted: February 26, 2016 in 2016 Berlinale, Reviews, Science Fiction
Tags: , , , , ,

Midnight SpecialMidnight Special was one of the real treats of the recently concluded 67th Berlinale Film Festival. The first showing was the film’s world premiere, and the inclusion of a genre movie into the Competition section of the festival was a welcome change from the programming approach of recent years. The initial showing occurred in the coveted first Friday evening time spot and was prefaced by a red carpet march of key crew and cast members including director/screenwriter Jeff Nichols and actors Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, and Kirsten Dunst. The film unspooled, and the proverbial good time was had by all.

At the same, it was difficult not to ask if this was not a matter of right film, wrong place. This quirky sic-fi story that harkens back to the narrative approach and thematic sensibility of stories from the 1980’s and 90’s would serve nicely as the anchor for fanboy freak outs like Fantasy FilmFest or Fantastic Fest. In Berlin, it was a fish out of water, albeit an exotic and fascinating one for the clime. The film is simultaneously modest in approach and epic in ambition, starting like the adaptation of a Stephen King novel or an episode of early X-Files before finishing on the scale of E.T. or Close Encounters.

Nichols currently occupies a position just slightly below the radar. His previous works have reviewed well, but not found an audience beyond the critics. Midnight Special will broaden his base and will do nothing to discourage first-rate talent from appearing in his films (Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, and Reese Witherspoon are all alumni), but may not be enough for a mainstream breakthrough. A sense of satisfaction lies tantalizingly out of reach in Midnight Special.

We begin in the middle with little immediate explanation. Two men and a boy are on the run from an end-of-times cult and from the federal government. One man is the biological father, the other has had the boy’s everlovin’ light shined on him. Not only does the trio have to get away, they also need to get somewhere. What will happen at the destination, the rapture or an invasion by earthly or interstellar forces, is unclear.

With its noticeable silence on a backstory and a reluctance to answer certain basic questions about the boy, strongly played by Jaeden Libeler in a performance that improves as the film goes on, the script works better for television than film. When Mulder and Scully are chasing gifted, possibly alien children, we don’t spend quite as much time wondering what they mean by “biological” parents, why the child was turned over to a cult, and whether or not we’re looking at the Messiah or the Anti-Christ.

These unresolved questions nag, both during and after a viewing. The superior casting and the performances Nichols elicits serve as the only distractions for many of the narrative gaps. Michael Shannon is the father, and Joel Edgerton, the enlightened muscle along for the ride. Both are convincing, and Edgerton looks much more committed here than he appeared to be in Jane Got a Gun. Adam Driver cruises in as a nerdy NSA analyst and nicely shows his range immediately after becoming the most hated man in a galaxy far, far away. The weak link, surprisingly, is Kirsten Dunst as the boy’s mother, who comes to the party late and can never seem to find her footing.That is quite the contrast to Sam Shepard, who absolutely dominates the early going, only to disappear from the movie. Shepard’s screen presence is off the charts. This role and his turn in last year’s superb thriller, Cold in July, show that he is simply a script away from an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Much hangs on the audience’s reaction to the ending of Midnight Special. To his credit, Nichols goes all in. The denouement is unambiguous and captured on camera. It’s grand and even a little trippy, but it also takes us back to the unanswered questions. The special effects in that scene, and, in general, throughout the movie, are reminiscent of how it was done back in the day. That and certain conventions such as the federal government serving as a monolithic beast with the military, intelligence community and FBI merely serving as the tentacles also date the approach, although in a gently nostalgic way. But no one can say this Midnight Special is the same old thing.

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