A very well shot familiar story that supplies a number of hooks as an attempt to avoid coming off feeling so familiar. Midnight Special opens with two men (Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton) recklessly driving down dark roads, wanted by the law for abduction of a supposed 8-year old boy who sits in the backseat reading comic books. Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) isn’t begging to be returned anywhere, and we gather that this fugitive run isn’t aimless but has a specific destination. Alton is also no ordinary boy, for one, he was last taken from a secular Texas ranch that housed a religious cult that seemed situated around the livelihood of that very boy.
And so it goes, the screenplay information is teasingly doled out to us all too deliberately. We gather snippets of information scene to scene – Alton needs goggles to protect his eyes that seem to beam a particular light, the cult knows Alton has to be somewhere in four days, an NSA investigator is introduced in the form of Adam Driver who seems to have the Charles Martin Smith role from 1984’s “Starman.” But goodness, Driver is particularly good at fleshing out what starts as a glib role!
But to get on with it, here is a movie that asks us a little too self-consciously to wait instead of just giving us more information upfront. For instance, religious cult leader Sam Shephard answers investigative questions too hazily, or Alton in the backseat at midnight doesn’t seem to comment on anything momentous at all.
When it comes to the two men, Shannon and Edgerton, we’re talking about two very esteemed actors at the moment. Yet one of them is more commanding to our attention than the other. Edgerton starts out opaque, he seems more easily provoked to reach for a weapon out of pride for the mission, but he turns out to be dense and then rather stupid character. Shannon sees himself as a fatherly figure, and he’s less interested in danger than Edgerton and is compassionate for the boy’s well-being. We get that classic cold stare mania in Shannon’s eyes which always helps to add mystery.
It’s honest for me to say I had big expectations for “Midnight Special” because it obviously relies on less gimmicks than your contemporary blockbuster and more ready to tell a character-driven story with some complex strands and twists to them. Jeff Nichols is an obviously talented director (“Mud,” “Take Shelter”), but for all his ability to tease and draw suspense with his films, he can also get stuck in low gear for too long. His characters withhold their emotions to oppressive degrees for the first half, and during that first half, it becomes frustrating for a viewer to connect. His movie here lost me for a few minutes, before I sprung again to attention when the NSA investigator and Alton have their first encounter that seems to exist on a higher plane of consciousness.
In truth, I had starts and stops when it came to my attempts to embrace “Midnight Special.” It wants to be beguiling as a Spielberg classic, it wants be as smart as “Starman.” But it failed to touch me deeply like any of those inspirations (I’m even more fond of Jeff Bridges’ work in “Starman” now than I was yesterday). I was in awe of it in a few occasions, especially by its conclusion. So to me, fairly enough, “Midnight Special” is a minor success.
111 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
SCI-FI & FANTASY / LATE TEENS / SATURDAY NIGHT GOOSEBUMPS
Film Cousins: “Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind” (1977); “E.T.” (1982); “Starman” (1984); “A.I.” (2001).