Movie Review: Midnight Special
(Rated PG-13 for some violence and action)
These days, while a lot of people have been eagerly anticipating seeing Warner Brothers’ big Spring release (and ‘launch’ film) Batman vs Superman, I found myself just steering clear of the multiplexes.
In the last few weeks, I began hearing word about a film called Midnight Special. The most I got from a number of tweets and information online, was that it was definitely something special…and according to many reviewers, it was recommended to see it with as little knowledge as possible.
This type of recommendation had also been suggested for other films I had seen, like It Follows, The Witch, and 10 Cloverfield Lane.
And so, I took a leap of faith as I had done with those other films, and stepped into the unknown, of writer/director Jeff Nichols’ latest work.
The film opens with two men named Roy (Michael Shannon), and Lucas (Joel Edgarton), driving across Texas in a beat-up Chevelle. A young boy wearing swimming goggles named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), sits in the backseat, reading comic books.
As they drive across the state, a string of FBI agents descend on a ranch and its inhabitants, taking them somewhere for questioning. One of the persons doing the questioning, is a man named Sevier (Adam Driver).
Alton’s name comes up several times in Sevier’s sessions, and he soon begins to develop questions about the boy as well.
If the summary above seems rather vague, it was because I meant to keep it so.
From the start of Special, writer/director Jeff Nichols throws you into the story with very little information. Much like It Follows, the film is dependent on the viewer using their brain, and at times, drawing their own conclusions.
For those who are well-versed in the films of Steven Spielberg (such as myself), one might also find themselves getting quite a few vibes coming off the film, that will make your “Spielberg-senses” tingle. How crazy are they?…well, I had to excise at least 3 paragraphs from this review about my thoughts on that.
Though where some of Spielberg’s more memorable films might put the camera at Alton’s point-of-view, Nichols holds our focus moreso on the adults.
This was one of the first times I had seen Michael Shannon in anything other than Man of Steel, and I wasn’t sure if I could buy him as ‘a regular guy.’ I was surprised that within 5 minutes, I was able to put aside thoughts of General Zod. There is definitely something going on behind his eyes in this film, and that helps keep his largely quiet demeanor all the more interesting.
Joel Edgarton’s role here is to support Shannon’s character, and the mystery of just who is and how he fits into the story, takes some rather surprising twists and turns.
One of the minor but more memorable characters in the film is Sevier, an FBI agent who figures into the overall story. Of course, after Adam Driver’s turn as Kylo Ren (and Matt, the radar technician), it might be hard to take him seriously in this role…then again, Driver’s character provides some of the few laughs that can be found in this film.
In a strange way, the film is very much a family film, but not like the more sterile, PG-rated fare one knows today. It almost taps into some of the more ‘serious’ tones of 30 years ago, when there wasn’t such a high factor on not scaring the younger ones in the audience.
In recent years, we’ve seen how some filmmakers have tried to tap into the zeitgeist of memorable films of yesteryear (such as Super 8). Here, Nichols actually manages a balancing act that I almost considered impossible. His film manages to straddle the line, with one foot in the films we grew up with in the 70’s and 80’s, and one foot in the present, where many of us have become adults and parents with responsibilities, and new points-of-view when it comes to life.
I will admit when it comes to films containing mysteries, I felt let down by films like Tomorrowland and Prometheus. Those were big films that seemed to hoard more answers that would probably have allowed the audience to go along with much of their world-building, if they would have given us just a bit more content. Luckily, with the smaller format Nichols has with Special, there was less chance of that happening here.
The jigsaw puzzle layout of the film provides enough pieces and information to feel satisfying, but we never get the entire multi-piece puzzle solved, leaving us with plenty to ponder on the drive home.
In the last few years, I have also been surprised at discovering new composers when I find smaller films. In this case, David Wingo’s music is both ethereal, and moving in its minimalist stylings. His main theme definitely stands out, with its simple (and mysterious) piano melody, that sounds like a car driving off into the dark night, not sure just where the final destination is going to take you.
The crowd that wants all their answers spoon-fed to them will most likely grow agitated, but to those of you who want to give your brain and emotions a workout, Midnight Special is the little film that manages to be an experience that will make you wish we could see more films that do what this one does.
Final Grade: B+ (Final Thoughts: “Midnight Special” feels like an enjoyable anomaly in the film world right now. It manages to put one foot in the past regarding films we may recall from Steven Spielberg and the 1980’s, but also plants a foot firmly in the realms of adulthood, and seeing the world from a perspective that might not be wholly comfortable. The actors within the film help drive its mystery forward, dropping small hints that never keep us from feeling like the film is being too covetous with its information. The film is one of the best-kept secrets in theaters at the moment, and I do hope more people will discover it as its limited release continues its slow roll-out across the country)