Midnight Special (2016)
We just can’t escape John Carpenter’s instructive influence at the moment. That I’m complaining of course, JC is one of my favourite filmmakers of all time, so its been extremely rewarding to see a entire horde of small budget, genre savy-films emerge from the same birthing chamber, particularly in light of the incompetent remakes which have scourged the multiplexes over the past decade – The Fog? The Thing prequel? The Assault on Precinct 13 remake? Yuck. This brings us to the fine, ermine career of Jeff Nichols, for my money one of the more interesting American directors to emerge from the independent scene in the new millennium, now on his fourth feature of Southern scented stories with the eagerly awaited Midnight Special. Numerous critics have cited both the Carpenter and Spielbergian overtones which are easy to detect, but without the lack of cloying sentimentality when it comes to the latter which can tarnish his work, instead opting for the distillation of awe and wonder which made the likes of E.T. and Close Encounters so successful and memorable. Opening in a furtive motel we meet two stern men – Roy (the always brilliant Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) who are sequestered with an eight-year-old boy named Alton (an eerie Jaeden Lieberher), whom we learn from news reports appears to have been kidnapped. With echoes of the Waco Branch Davidans the authorities raid the church led by Sam Shepherd, he is also hunting the fugitives and desires return the capture of the valuable child at all costs, grimly warning the FBI that they have no idea what they are dealing with. We soon learn that Roy is Alton’s birth father whom is desperately leading his son to the location of some psychically seered co-ordinates, linking up with Alton’s excommunicated birth mother (Kirsten Dunst) along the way. But who, or indeed what is Alton beneath that human carapace and what is the source of his mysterious, near apocalyptic powers? Well that would be telling wouldn’t’ it?……
Cell phones aside the film not only feels like a genre product of the 1980’s it could have been set in the 1980’s, such is the tempo and aspirations of Midnight Special from its sparse deployment of special effects to its emphasis on atmosphere and environment, so while it stands in the shadow of previous beloved artefacts it does struggle initially so define its own voice. I think a good point of departure (if you’ll excuse the plot driven pun) that enables us to unpack the film is to consider Nichol’s expressed working protocols, acting as sole screenwriter and director in true auteur fashion. He has explained that he writes on two ‘tracks,’ when slaving over a groaning MacBook, one for plot/genre and the other for behaviour/characterization. This enables him to take two aligned narrative cables and twist them into a stronger and more resilient coil, merging both streams into a movie which feels familiar but still aspires to surprise and delight. That’s a terrific approach which is instructive of his commitment to genre and style, a lesson which many of these independently sourced directors who are being absorbed into the studio system should take heed, we’ll see how Rian Johnson handles Episode IX but Colin Trevorrow certainly abandoned character in favor of spectacle soured SFX in the atrocious Jurassic World. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nichols pick up a franchise nod having delivered another modest critical darling (Midnight Special only cost $20 million), and I for one would be amused to see his take on a Star Wars picture, some outcasts running through the solemn sandy badlands of Tattooine in pursuit of some ethereal, spiritual peace could fit in with that universe mechanics. He’s stated that his earlier triumph Take Shelter was inspired by his apprehension of responsibility, of getting married and starting a family, but the journey to Midnight Special was far more fraught. During pre-production he suffered a terrifying ordeal when his infant son was seriously ill, an experience of potential loss and abandonment which he has poured into his art like any worthy , without coming as to self-indulgent – again those genre trappings give the film one remove from a narcissistic bore. The film pulses with a genuine soul and desire to uncoil its subtexts within the confines of the genre infrastructure, although initially I liked it a lot I was a little disappointed for some shortcomings which I’ll get into shortly, but upon reflection some of those concerns have faded while other celestial moments have soared.
Oddly the film that Midnight Special immediately brought to mind wasn’t the obvious influence Starman which Nichols has cited as a major influence but another eighties cult classic – Near Dark. Both films are largely set at night, the reasoning in this that sunlight causes Alton to exhibit dangerous outbursts and symptoms of his mysterious pedigree, draping them both in a nebulous, smooth twilight suggesting the transitional permeability between two worlds. Both films prowl through the small towns and communities of Texas and Alabama, incubating rural authenticity in which the fantastical and uncanny takes place, and both films share a lyrical synth driven score – another Carpenter influence that the film proudly boasts on its sleeve. Nichols has selected a lens flare driven cinematography which could have J.J. Abrams reaching for his copyright attorney, but there is a method to the madness which becomes clear in the final act which holds a few surprises ups its sleeve – I really can’t elaborate on this for fears of the dreaded spoilers. Other recent interlopers to the Alien paddock like Super-8 and Tomorrowland seem to be pushing smaller scale SF into more positive modes, with the aliens (in both terrestrial and extra-terrestrial sense) as benevolent saviours rather than threats to be feared and fought, another link back to 1980’s staples like Cocoon and E.T. Again I’m dancing around spoilers here but the third act reveal is genuine, tear inducing ‘wow’ stuff for SF aficionados, restoring one’s faith in modest and appropriate deployment of SFX which serves the story rather than leaving the audience in a visual state of concussion.
However, there are frustrating problems which can’t be avoided. I didn’t particularly feel any emotional investment from the parents to Alton apart from one briefly touching scene, and Driver’s character feels woefully undeveloped in the first couple of acts which make his decisions in the final stretch disappointingly inauthentic, even if he’s playing the standard government good guy nested among a swarm of bureaucrats who want to weaponize or permanently eliminate a threat they can’t understand. The narrative slyly drops history and backstory through restrained and removed dialogue exchanges which is welcomed as storytelling to aimed at an adult audience, but other chains of cause and effect are nigh incomprehensible, with one scene where Driver cracks a crucial code is woefully illogical and confusing. Upon reflection Joel Egerton’s entire character is surplus to requirement, you could surgically remove him from the plot and you’d probably generate more warmth between the father and son doxology which propels the entire empathic engine of the film. The plot follows the usual race against time as Tyler grows more sickly, suffering from a photosynthesis aversion to our blazing sun, and there isn’t many surprises story-beat wise as the interesting context of the cult Alton’s history seems unexplored and expressed – those rumoured re-shoots ordered by a nervous Warner Brothers appear to hold water. Nevertheless Midnight Special excels in atmosphere which is Nichol’s forte, there’s a real sense of the world both physical and spiritual surrounding the fugitives with a slowly encroaching dread snapping at their heels, and any film so committed to such qualities is welcomed as antidote to the crash-bang carnage of the Hollywood proscenium. If they just fixed a few niggles this could have been a brilliant work rather than just a good one, but I suspect this is a movie that will grow and strengthen with repeated viewings, with a final act revelation which is pure cinematic celestial celebration. Midnight Special is a perfect companion piece to Nichol’s Take Shelter which for the moment remains a stronger picture, faith and prophecy hinting at entities beyond human comprehension, locked in the pure unencumbered love between father and son;