Review: “Midnight Special”

As mid-level budget filmmaking wanes and decent visual effects become quite affordable, we’re seeing more and more genre filmmaking exploring big ideas and themes in a way that often makes a very small scale film feel large. Filmmaker Jeff Nichols is no stranger to this, his “Take Shelter” was a story about apocalyptic warnings which proved to be an excellent exploration of masculine anxiety.

Whereas that film pointedly avoided the cliches of supernatural thrillers to deliver something both original and exceptional, his new effort “Midnight Shelter” isn’t so fresh or rich even if it remains a very polished piece of filmmaking. Effectively a blend of John Carpenter’s “Starman” and Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “ET: The Extra-Terrestrial,” Nichols isn’t as afraid to embrace formula this time even as he knowingly avoids the overt emoting that has often proven the Achilles Heel of this genre.

Yes it’s a person (in this case a boy) with exceptional powers on the run, with the help of their family, from evil authority figures that include a sympathiser who proves helpful in their darkest times. Nichols makes only minor tweaks here and there, blending some religious elements into the work and avoiding extraterrestrial influences in favor of more human and ubermensch possibilities.

There’s enough changes to the details though, like very early reveals of the kid’s channeling of radio transmissions to the idea of a cult hiding him, to make it interesting even if it’s not enough to overcome strong feelings of familiarity. Kicking things off in media res, the reveals here are very carefully dished out with a discipline which make it quite compelling on first viewing – it’s a restrained and very lean film that demands a certain amount of intelligence and intuitive leaps from its audience.

Sadly the flaws quickly pop out on reflection. The characters – though supported by very strong performances by the likes of Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst and Joel Edgerton – are one-note. Their only quality is determination to get the boy, very well played by Jaeden Lieberher, to where he needs to go. Shannon in particular is able to milk the most out of a fairly routine part with his wonderful ability to emote so much through his face and delivery.

Adam Driver is an exception, his arc is contained entirely within the movie. It’s an even more cliche role than anyone else in the film, his NSA agent effectively a merging of the Francois Truffaut and Bob Balaban roles from ‘Encounters,’ but it’s the one that at least brings a brief sense of wonder and energy to an otherwise very self-serious affair.

Nichols’ film is not short of ambition, and here he creates a very lived in and believable world in which these exceptional acts take place. That he does so with very minimal dialogue and a very small cast of characters is a testament to his strength as a filmmaker. Despite its polish though, you can’t help shake the feeling that the more narratively compelling stuff took place before events in the film kicked off and so what we’re left with is essentially the second half of a chase movie.

That doesn’t mean that what’s there still isn’t compelling in its own right. The film’s themes of the importance of familial bonds shines through and offer a comforting notion, while its ending is a surprisingly satisfying one that tries something a bit different. Though not an exceptional original sci-fi films of late such as “Ex Machina” or “Under the Skin,” its every bit up there with the likes of “Sound of my Voice” or this year’s “The Invitation” of engrossing small scale but big idea filmmaking. It is also certainly one of the better films of the year thus far.