Cut to the Chase: Midnight Special (2016)


While watching Midnight Special, I suspected that Jeff Nichols wrote an action-packed sci-fi/road movie then decided to completely jettison the first two acts and expand the last third to feature length. He deliberately eschews character set-up and plot context in favour of urgent plot-drive. The film is essentially one long highway pursuit and Nichols literally just cuts to the chase. At first this approach is thrilling. The film begins mid-action in a dingy motel room. There’s a kid called Alton with abilities, his Dad is Michael Shannon, or is he? There’s a cult led by Sam Shepard who also lay claim to the boy. Alton is the key to some kind of impending global event. A catastrophe? A purge? A reckoning? This being a sci-fi movie, we can be sure the event is not completely religious in nature.

Mystery takes the film a long way. Having to play catch up and fill in a lot of backstory yourself is certainly refreshing with this genre. Nichols thrives on character beats and much of the film finds time to breathe in silent moments that find characters alone reflecting on past-events we have not seen. Characters and subplots are completely dropped as soon as they fall out of Alton’s immediate vicinity. They aren’t necessarily missed, just underdeveloped. Nichols’ desire to keep progressing is unforgiving and his refusal to give in to flashbacks or exposition is admirable but it soon becomes frustrating. There comes a point where all the ellipses and suggestions aren’t enough and we just want some hard facts to get on solid footing and enjoy the damn story instead of trying to figure out what it is.

Where the film lacks in it’s storytelling it succeeds in it’s aesthetics. The cinematography of Midnight Special is a nocturnal beauty and many shots feel downright iconic. It is dark, inky and lens-flares splash across anamorphic shots like shooting stars. Just gorgeous. The stylisation extends to the performances too. Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Sam Shepard and Adam Driver all operate with maximum subtlety. The film seems to be built of squinting eyes or those bulging with wonder. It is in love with close-ups. Shannon’s face feels custom made for staring out of windshields at night and while he feels vulnerable the film relies on Kirsten Dunst for the heart. Her face has gained age and her temperament is no longer that of a young woman. It feels like Melancholia was simultaneously the end of one phase in her career and the beginning of another. It’s been while since I saw her on the big-screen and I was struck by how much maternal presence and strength she has gained in those few years. She isn’t a headlining presence in Midnight Special, her scenes are fleeting and crucial, but her performance is the one I keep thinking about. If I had to guess, I’d say we’re going to see a lot of exciting work coming from her in the next couple of years.

I admire Nichols’ penchant for applying arthouse pacing to rock-solid genre frameworks. He’s carving out his own, very specific brand of storytelling and Midnight Special is a welcome successor to Take Shelter and Mud. His talents still feel like they are in their formative years, however, as none of these films have been wholly successful or satisfying for me (Shelter has come closest). I suspect he is one of those filmmakers who’s filmography as a whole is going to be more important than the individual titles. I can see and appreciate his ambitions with these projects but the final films fall short of their potential. Perhaps it’s his tendency to aim for Malicky visual poetry which is cancelled out by his love of rigid composition. With Midnight Special it’s as if he’s aiming for the old-school thrills and spectacle of Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Starman but also wants to make something elliptical, spare and poetic. The finished product suggests you can’t have your cake and eat it.

It’s exciting that a film this sparse and unconventional gets major studio backing and we seem to be getting a lot of very interesting sci-fi movies lately, on all ends of the spectrum. Maybe this one will fare better upon rewatch but as it stands it held me at a distance when I desperately wanted it to involve me intimately and viscerally. Very well made and impressively conceived yet somewhat underwhelming.

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