MIDNIGHT SPECIAL Review
Director: Jeff Nichols
Ever order tea at a restaurant, get caught up in a conversation with friends, then sip at your drink only to consume a lukewarm, flavorless substance? That’s MIDNIGHT SPECIAL in a nutshell. In an attempt to make a high concept, Spielbergian sci-fi for the good children of the earth, director Jeff Nichols has crafted a film so eagerly seeking to imitate that it never actually does anything fresh. With dim, uninventive cinematography and unengaging set pieces, this 2016 release plays all of its cards safely, jumping ship before things really get interesting. The problem here is that both in form and narrative, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is the quintessential Vimeo Staff Pick of modern cinema; too high concept to be an exceptional short film, too elementary to be a compelling feature.
If there’s an award for directing children, it should be named after Nichols for his work on MUD. The Matthew McConaughey film had an incredible ability to shine a light on its underage stars despite all of the adult acting chops on display. With Nichols’s latest vehicle, he’s teamed up with fellow TAKE SHELTER and MUD actor, Michael Shannon, along with Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton and Adam Driver, to tell a sci-fi manhunt that combines elements of E.T and AKIRA. Conceptually, there’s an abundance of room to play with new ideas here, pitting a loving father against a religious cult and the U.S government, who are all desperately trying to get their hands onto a little boy with extraordinary powers.
E.T. denwa home
The buzzkill is that the pitfalls in execution are all frustratingly obvious. Stakes are instantly high, but questions of morality always miss the additional stress they so urgently deserve. An opening sequence involving the murder of a police officer is far too effortless because those in the way of our protagonists always seem to make the decision for our heroes. As such, Shannon is faced with a repetitive barrage of questions regarding his son’s place on earth and that he needs to let him go. While this is interesting the first time, there’s no need for the sequence to be repeated without modulation again and again, especially when the finale doesn’t allow Shannon to have any say in the matter.
But perhaps the greatest disappointment is how clearly MIDNIGHT SPECIAL misses the mark in being a clash in ideology. While Shannon represents the middleground, a father who will selfishly protect his child from harm, the cult and the U.S government both seek out the boy for different, albeit equally grim reasons. Where the film falls completely flat is that the cult is completely sidelined by the end of the film. Despite the fact that the religious fanaticism of this organization could clash with the atheist rhetoric of Adam Driver’s character, we are instead treated to a manhunt that doesn’t explore the immorality of exploiting a child for prophetic or scientific purposes.
Admittedly, it was a surprise when it turned into a Cyclops origin story
The fact that the cult was actually an exciting concept in the first 20 minutes only goes to show that it was a wasted opportunity. Oddly enough, the same applies across the board in other corners of the film as well. The night vision goggles that are used to drive quietly through the night are an exceptional image, but never come in handy later down the line. The boy’s abilities and his blue goggles are left mostly ambiguous, and while this could have been acceptable, it ultimately comes across like Nichols is too afraid to let his film take on any identity of its own, awkwardly floating around as a bland tribute to Spielberg.
A step in the wrong direction in every capacity for an incredibly talented filmmaker, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL shows that Jeff Nichols surely has the potential to still make great films as long as he never allows spectacle to get ahead of character. As a filmmaker, his talents lie in interaction, not action, consequently proving that his future should be reserved for more introspective pieces and less visually glossy ones. At the end of the day, there’s really nothing special about MIDNIGHT SPECIAL. Too far? I apologize. Scratch that from the record.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend