– by David Morgan-Brown
Midnight Special hits the sweet spot between independent film and ‘80s style blockbuster. It contains the classic traditional style of evoking suspense and leading the audience into a series of spectacles, each one more impressive than the last. The on-the-move story starts off in the middle and we’re deeply engrossed by it as we gain clarity of this bizarre situation until towards the film’s final act we have an almost entirely clear understanding of it all.
I’ll try to step around eggshells mentioning the plot, but what we have is two men, Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) on the run from the authorities, with Roy’s eight year old son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who as we soon find out seems to have some sort of supernatural abilities, according to on-the-fly research by NSA officer Paul (Adam Driver). They meet up with Alton’s mum, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), and we find out it’s not just the government after this boy, but also the highly religious institution that most of these characters have previously been involved with.
Director Jeff Nicholas teams up once again with Michael Shannon, a worthy collaboration, and he and the rest of the cast make the best out of the characters, with Lucas being the assertive-aggressive muscle of the group, Sarah the warm and protective guard, and Roy switches between the two as the most stressed out dad in the world (or any other world). However, their characterisation is rather thin (if apparent at all), we simply don’t find out a lot about the lives of these characters, just what we know in the moment they are in. It seems the effort put into characterisation is redirected to the story instead, teasing out this peculiar scenario and adding to it as the film goes on. The viewers’ interest and intrigue is piqued at first, and gradually as we get to the end, just about all story strands and ambiguities are covered, leaving the film suitably closed.
For an independent film with a modest budget, the technical side of Midnight Special is usually impressive as well. Some of the cinematography also helps with establishing the story and mood (which are almost one and the same), with the incredibly dark night-time scenes when the crew decide to kill all their lights to help them evade the authorities making good use of the digital cameras’ ability to pick up the smallest of light sources (unfortunately, some of the more lit scenes show off the usual teal and orange business). The visual effects as well are also impressive, when they’re sparingly used (though the film inevitably builds to a more spectacular CGI set-piece for its climax), and it’s great to see now films with such low budgets are still able to create such world-building and inventive CGI effects.
There’s something else going on in Midnight Special that I can’t quite put my finger. I regain the feeling by looking at the poster of this seemingly-oblivious kid, the centre of attention within all of America, draped in a white sheet, a torch in one hand and water goggles over his eyes. This childlike whimsy clashing with the importance of the overall situation says something about a story like this. This sort of feeling is only very vaguely evoked during the film, yet it adds to its enigmatic appeal. This is a film that, although more or less cleanly ties up all story ambiguities towards the end, still contains a mysterious feeling that’s somehow tied to a childlike sense of melancholy and even nostalgia.