Midnight Special deserved a bigger release than it got.
Straddling the commercial/arthouse divide with a combination of thrills, finely-tuned CGI, big-name actors and marvellous sci-fi abstractions, director Jeff Nichols’ latest takes you on a ride where even the casual viewer will be more than happy to get on board.
Midnight Special involves a cult, government agents, a “kidnapping” and a bunch of shady individuals. It all sounds like your standard thriller, except the young subject of the story Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) walks everywhere with goggles; shining a mysterious and blinding light from his eyes.
Continuing in the best tradition of soft sci-fi thrillers like Under the Dome or The 4400, Midnight Special’s ideas are captivating because they’re just that – ideas – and they invite the audience to reflect or otherwise just revel in the tension as its trio of leads (Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst and Australia’s Joel Edgerton) hurtle toward an uncertain finale. It doesn’t say what we should think or try to engender any particular response, far from it. Rather, Nichols lets the visuals do the talking and wisely leaves much of the emotional pull up to Shannon, on whom he hovers for infrequent long-hold shots. Shannon, one of the most talented actors working in Hollywood today and comparable in many senses to yesteryear’s screen heavyweight James Cagney, can likewise convey complex thoughts and reflect much of what the audience is thinking through a simple grimace or wide-eyed stare. Deployed here to great effect by Nichols, Shannon does so admirably.
Adam Driver’s performance also deserves plaudits; his government agent is as much the comic relief as he is the audience’s vessel. An “interrogation” sequence featuring Driver and Lieberher is amongst the film’s best scenes.
The fond allusions to the Superman narrative will not be lost on fans, not least of all due to Shannon’s casting, while greater theological themes similarly teased out in the most recent Superman epic get a much better treatment here.
Proffered a limited release, having to seek out this film does not do justice to its evident distinctions. A thriller as much as a thought-piece, whole sequences rest alone on their suspense, packing quite a few moments that get the heart racing. Midnight Special tries very hard to be one of the epics that bridges the mainstream and niche divides, but more importantly, it deserves to be.
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