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Film review: Midnight Special ***

By Preston Wilder

There’s limited release and then there’s Midnight Special, playing a single late-night show on just three screens across the island (it’s not showing at all if you’re in Limassol) on the slowest week of the year, when everything is shut for August 15. Granted, the previous three films by writer-director Jeff Nichols – Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud, all hugely acclaimed – didn’t play at all on the big screen here, so this is already a step up; and granted, the film is a tough sell, low-key science fiction with some gentle special effects and an emphasis on slow-burning tension. Still, it’s worth watching.

This is really a film about parenting, albeit with a twist. A father (in this case Roy, played by Michael Shannon) will always comfort his son (Jaeden Lieberher as eight-year-old Alton) after a traumatic experience – even when the experience in this case involves Alton shooting rays of light from his eyes, with the whole house shaking and bits of plaster falling from the ceiling. A father always knows his son better than anyone else, even when the kid has unusual habits. At one point, driving down the highway at night with Alton in the back seat, the boy starts speaking Spanish in a strange sing-song voice. “He knows Spanish?” asks Lucas (Joel Edgerton), the puzzled passenger on this particular road trip. “Check the radio,” mumbles Roy – and a quick search finds a Spanish-language station where the DJ is delivering the exact same sing-song spiel, as though Alton had simply plugged himself into the frequency. “It’s something that he does,” explains Roy wearily.

Shannon, a hatchet-faced actor with a sensitive soul, makes much out of little, culminating in a lovely exchange when Alton assures his dad that he won’t have to worry about him much longer; “I’ll always worry about you, Alton. That’s the deal,” replies Roy – and Shannon modulates superbly, holding his face very still and allowing love to flicker briefly in his eyes. Still, the boy has a point – because Alton has magical powers and Roy is taking him away, having abducted him from a cult that revered him as their Messiah. The two (plus Lucas and Sarah, the boy’s mother) are heading to a certain place on a certain day, pursued by cops and FBI, where something big will undoubtedly happen – maybe the Day of Judgment, as cult members claim – and father and son may well end up being separated. “What if Alton doesn’t belong with us?” as Sarah puts it.

Alton is like E.T., on his way to a bittersweet rendezvous. ‘Roy’ was also the name of Roy Neary, the protagonist in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The spirit of early Spielberg – a big believer in magical kids – runs through Midnight Special, also invoked in some pointedly old-fashioned detail (drop-seat pyjamas, a tape recorder), though Nichols prefers a more muted emotional volume. Spielberg would surely have added more turmoil to the road trip, indeed the major drawback with the film is that not enough changes: the plot becomes clear early on, then simply plays out. Sarah (played by Kirsten Dunst) is one-dimensional, while Adam Driver as NSA agent Paul Sevier seems to have been designed as a more mysterious character than he actually is. His appearance at the end – “My name’s Paul Sevier” – is staged like the ultimate punchline, yet it’s hard to see why.

Still, there’s something (mildly) special about Midnight Special, linked to Nichols’ facility for regional atmosphere and un-Hollywood rhythms. “It wasn’t images; it was like a feeling,” says one cult member, trying to explain Alton’s appeal, and the same might be said of this movie – though it’s images too, set in the swampy Deep South and taking place mostly at night (Alton, who wears protective goggles, can’t handle sunlight) so it’s highways and gas stations, pools of light and a rolling, reverberating music score.

Eye in the Sky, this week’s other new release, is a good example of a film that works superbly yet doesn’t really lend itself to a second viewing (everything, including the ideas, is out in the open). Midnight Special is the opposite, an underwhelming movie you may nonetheless feel like watching again, just to be submerged in its ambience – and in fact you may have to watch it again, because right at the end (literally in the final 10 seconds) something quite intriguing is implied that could make for some lively post-film discussion, yet is easy to miss if you’re not watching closely. I suspect a second look at the film may be called for. Good luck finding it, though.


DIRECTED BY Jeff Nichols
STARRING Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher
UK 2016 112 mins

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