Heading back to the cinema for the first time in a few weeks, myself and herself were faced with a choice: The Jungle Book, which has been critically celebrated but whose promotion left me numb, Eddie The Eagle, looking both inspiring and positive, but also sentimental and predictable, or…Midnight Special. That was the one we trumped for in the end, this supernatural mystery film with a stand-out cast and an interesting hook. I’m wasn’t super familiar with the work of director Jeff Nichols, but I knew he was an acclaimed story-teller: was Midnight Special a suitable introduction to him, or should my girlfriend and I gone with Eddie or Mowgli?
Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) abducts his eight-year-old son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) from a religious cult, who believe Alton’s otherworldly powers make him their saviour, in the face of a coming date of world-changing significance. Fleeing with childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgarton) and Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), Roy must deal with the violent manifestations of his son’s powers, while evading the agents of the cult and the US government, fronted by inquisitive NSA agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver).
Speaking of my girlfriend (who has spent five wonderful years tolerating my ramblings about films) it was she who succinctly summed up Midnight Special better than I could. When I pondered, after the screening, just why the film was called “Midnight Special”, her response was simply “Because it was a stupid movie, that’s why.” And she’s right. Midnight Special is a stupid movie. And I don’t mean that in a uniformly derogatory way, because there is plenty to like about Midnight Special. But the film falls to pieces long before the credits roll, and allows a narrative stupidity to infect what could otherwise have been a fascinating paranormal enigma in the grandest sci-fi style of Spielberg. Midnight Special wants to be E.T, or Close Encounters, so, so badly, but in the end is more like a Tomorrowland or Lucy or, dare I say it, Interstellar.
And what I mean by that is that Midnight Special does great work in setting up what it needs to set-up: this strange child with strange powers, a desperate father trying to keep him safe, and lots of nefarious parties trying to track the two down. But when it comes to the last act, that critical last 30-40 minutes, Midnight Special, just doesn’t hold up. It has all the hallmarks of a film where serious thought was put into the basic premise and the characters and the plot beats for the first hour, before a muddled and ill-thought out ending was attached, one that struggles to be moving, engaging or in any way satisfying.
Let’s skip back a bit. We are introduced to the film’s trinity in the opening moments: father Roy, son Alton and friend Lucas. They are on the run, and we aren’t exactly sure why, or why Lucas is helping the other two. A succession of well-executed “Holy shit” moments follow, as the extent of Alton’s powers are vividly portrayed, most notably in a brief but stunning sequence at a highway gas station, when things turn from the disturbingly strange to the near-Biblical in scope. But all the while Nichols is keeping things at a very personal level, in the relationship between Roy and Alton, portrayed less through words and more through action. In order to work, the “Supernatural boy heading towards destiny” angle actually has to be subordinate to the “Father trying to protect his son” angle, and Midnight Special does that for much of its running time. That made it interesting, and engaging, and the emphasis on faith in large parts of the narrative, how characters express it and deal with it in regards Alton, was interesting as well.
And Nichols knows how to spin out a mystery too. Things smartly open in medias reis with no depictions of Alton’s actual abduction from the ranch, and move swiftly onwards. We get numerous hints as to Alton’s make-up, and Midnight Special lets it fester in the mind of the audience for an appropriate enough time. Is he some kind of scientific oddity, a mutant who can communicate and control electronic devices? Is he a superhero in the making (the film cleverly nodding towards Superman in the comics Alton reads, while Zod sits in the seat ahead of him)? Is he some sort of religious messiah character, here to save the righteous from a pre-ordained apocalypse? Is he from our planet? Midnight Special keeps you guessing, effectively, as you remain a few steps behind the actual characters for a long time.
Until you aren’t guessing anymore. I’ll talk about it in more detail down below, but, spoiler-free, the reveal is a clumsy and confusing one, that leaves the audience initially befuddled in the vague wording, and then utterly baffled at the conclusion, when Nichols takes the E.T/Close Encounters riff a bit too far in his pursuit of an ending that will be a suitable pay-off for what has come before. But it’s all so muddled: things are first explained in a deliberately imprecise manner, then in a too clear-cut manner, and then it’s a rush to the final scenes, to the money shots that seem too half-assed.
And of we’re talking flaws in structure, this is the first film in a while where I had a very definite sense that I was watching something that would be fully approved and certified by Blake Snyder’s academy of successful screenwriting. The beats of his now famous “beat sheet” are there for all to see, from the “Theme Stated” in the opening minutes to the “Catalyst” driving the plot into Act Two, “Bad Guys Close In” with the “ranch” assassins, “All Is Lost” at the beginning of third act and the contrasted “Opening/Final Image”. And there’s more where that came from. I’m not saying that a film following the beat sheet is an inherently bad story. It’s quite the opposite, in practise. But there are times when you really see the beats coming through on-screen, and it’s not a good thing to realise. Midnight Special was one of those films for me.
And maybe it was the adherence to the beat sheet formula that caused the fall-off in the character journeys that so stunts the final act. Leaving aside the primary relationship of Roy and Alton, many others of the cast seem truncated in most respects: Lucas is potentially fascinating, but finds himself caught bluntly stating his motivations and reasons for coming along on the journey (which are lazily convenient), Sarah is introduced a bit late and gets to be little more than fretful and regretful in equal measure, the ranch cult and its agents are frustratingly shallow, dropping out of the story very quickly when the narrative has no more need of them, and Adam Driver’s NSA agent seems more of a plot point crux than an actual living, breathing three dimensional being: a tool by which Nichols can manufacture a predictable “government tries to understand something it can’t understand” scene, and them a clumsy and all too convenient resolution to the same. Why he does what he does goes unexplained.