So a few days ago, the cinema chain Odeon held one of their regular Screen Unseen events. These are when you get the chance to see a film before it’s general release for a reduced cost, but you don’t know what film you’re watching until you’re in the screening. For these events there is always the potential to see something great or something terrible and this adds to the excitement of the event. The most recent one was the first one of these screenings that I was able to go to, and I’m thankful that the first one I went to was for a good film like Midnight Special. I don’t think it’s a perfect film but it does have a lot of intriguing elements that make it an engaging watch.The film is about a child, Alton Meyer, who has been reported as abducted by his father Roy. We find out though that Roy was escaping from a religious compound, called The Ranch, with his son because Alton has special powers which are directing him towards a certain location on a certain day. However, the attempt by Roy and his friend Lucas to get there are hindered by members of The Ranch looking for them, along with a manhunt for Alton under way by the FBI, along with the difficulties Alton has in controlling his powers. The biggest strength this film has is with the mystery it creates throughout over the purpose of Alton’s powers. There’s this great sense of intrigue about everything that builds throughout the film, there being just enough detail to keep it interesting. The stuff regarding The Ranch in particular I found really interesting, the way that what Alton says has been appropriated into the word of God and has become the text of sermons is a highlight for me and the extent to which they are willing to preserve themselves and the belief that Alton will protect them from what will happen on the day he’s been saying is interesting, along with how they excommunicated Alton’s mum. It’s a shame though that, near the end of the film, The Ranch is completely forgotten about, I would have loved to have seen a resolution to their story but that’s not what happened. I also feel that some of the mysteries weren’t resolved in a way that was satisfying to me. Some of them, like what Alton needed to do, were interesting to see, but others were either completely dropped or not explored to their full potential. The stuff with the FBI and NSA also felt like a bit of a missed opportunity for me, the idea that Alton was using military signals to communicate, inadvertently revealing classified information was fascinating and the way the government treated Alton was engaging (if a bit too similar to Firestarter), but this idea wasn’t explored fully. I feel like more effort was put into creating mysteries, which were engaging to watch, at the expense of providing answers.
On a performance level, I am always excited when I see a film directed by Jeff Nichols because I know that there is the potential for an amazing performance by Michael Shannon. Nichols directed Shannon in one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in Take Shelter and I’m always hoping that the two of them will create a performance even half as good as that one and I have to say, they came close. Shannon is excellent here, the strength of his performance coming from his subtlety. It’s clear throughout that Shannon as Roy has a deep love for his son and is willing to do anything to keep him safe, the performance by Shannon as the film goes on and more dangerous stuff happens to Alton shows the pain and grief that he feels over potentially losing his son. This is matched by Jaeden Lieberher as Alton. The body language that he has throughout the film lets you know the power that is inside Alton, but he also makes it clear that he is scared on his power and what he can do if he cannot control his powers. Joel Edgerton does a good job as the audience surrogate character, his astonishment of Alton’s powers matching that of the audience effectively and the struggle he feels over his actions feels very relate-able. Adam Driver meanwhile does a good job as NSA agent Paul Sevier. There’s a clear intelligence to the character that makes his decisions more believable, even if some of them I didn’t understand (I have no idea how he found out where Alton was going), there’s also a curiosity to the character which makes him endearing and Driver plays the part brilliant, his interest in Alton reflecting that of the audience. However, Sam Shepard only gets one strong scene as Calvin Meyer, leader of The Ranch, and Kirsten Dunst is completely wasted as Sarah, Alton’s mum, her performance is strong, but the script doesn’t give her anything to work with, all of the strong character stuff between parent and child was handled by Shannon and I don’t really know why she was in the film, it may have worked better if she was cut out.
On a technical level, the film is as impressive as I’ve come to expect from Jeff Nichols. The direction is on top form throughout, especially at the end of the film, the music is one of the highlights of the film and the cinematography is excellent. I particularly like the use of lighting, most of the film taking place in near darkness as Alton is affected by sunlight, with this making the scenes which include bright light, mainly when Alton is using his powers and a blue light comes out of his eyes, stand out all the more, highlighting the otherworldly quality of Alton.
Overall, Midnight Special is a good film, but I feel like the potential set up in the first half of the film wasn’t taken advantage of in the second. The central mysteries and many of the plot elements are fascinating to watch, aided by excellent performances from Michael Shannon and Jaeden Lieberher but in the second half of the film, too many plot threads are dropped for me to remain as engaged. The plot threads that were resolved were done well, but those weren’t the plot elements I was invested in the most.
My Rating: 3/5