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MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (review)

Review by Sharon Knolle
Produced by Sarah Green, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones
Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst,
Adam Driver, Sam Shepard, Jaeden Lieberher

There’s a really great movie struggling to get out of Midnight Special, an indie road movie-Close Encounters mash-up from writer-director Jeff Nichols in which a father (Michael Shannon) tries to keep Alton, his son with special powers (Jaeden Lieberher), out of the hands of a religious cult and the FBI.

While Nichols has only previously hinted at supernatural elements in Take Shelter, in which Shannon has a premonition of looming disaster, here he goes the full Spielberg.  That worked fine for J.J. Abrams in Super 8, a lovingly crafted homage to Close Encounters that, while derivative, evoked the same sense of wonder and awe we expect from Spielberg.

While Nichols manages to pull off hokier aspects of his story – Alton’s eyes emit a powerful white light so often it becomes tiresome – he’s not able to convey the bone-deep love of the genre and wide-eyed geekiness of a Spielberg or an Abrams.

The characters, despite the actors’ best efforts, remain ciphers: Alton is an odd blank who we never really care about. There’s little mystery that he’s not really human, but, beyond a liking for comic books, we never learn anything about who he is. We see and hear about the strange, otherworldly things he can do but, honestly, the little alien robot in Earth to Echo had more personality.

We don’t learn much about Shannon or Sarah, except that they both used to be members of The Ranch, a religious cult run by Sam Shepard. As the film starts, FBI agents raid The Ranch looking for Alton, who’s somehow hacked some unhackable top-secret NSA info. Turns out the cult has been worshiping Alton, whom they believe will protect them if the end of the world is coming in a few days, as Alton seemed to be prophesying.

The race is on for Roy, Roy’s remarkably devoted childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), and Sarah to get where Alton is directing them on the chosen date before either the FBI or the cult members can stop them. Since Alton can’t be exposed to daylight, the fugitives (who have made national news) have to travel by night.

There are some good twists and unexpected moments along the way, but there are also huge gaps in logic: Alton’s powers loudly damage a friend’s house in the middle of the night, but no neighbors seem to notice. When an injured Roy tries to drive around a roadblock, soldiers merely order him back onto the road, and miss the chance to capture this fugitive whose face has been all over Nancy Grace.

The best thing about the film is NSA agent Paul Sevier (an homage to French director François Truffaut’s role in Close Encounters?), played to nervous, nerdy perfection by Adam Driver. After being so wildly miscast as villainous Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Driver here becomes the most engaging and sympathetic character, one you wish had more screen time. His scenes with Alton provide some of the film’s funniest scenes.

As a fan of Nichols and Shannon, and certainly of Close Encounters, I was really rooting for this film. But Nichols’ stripped-down indie sensibility and Shannon’s stoic impassivity are at odds with the kind of big, inspiring, epic story they’re trying to tell here.

Other critics seem to be embracing the film and perhaps you’ll get swept up in the kind of magic it’s trying to spin as well. It’s, unfortunately, one cinematic ride that never got me on board.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 5
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