A disappointingly arid genre exercise that takes its cues from two amazing filmmakers, and comes up so short of their average it's almost as pathetic as it is aggravating.
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols
With Jaeden Lieberher (Alton Meyer), Michael Shannon (Roy Tomlin), Kirsten Dunst (Sarah Tomlin), Joel Edgerton (Lucas), and Adam Driver (Paul Sevier)
Spoiler alert: mild
So, I finally get my ass back in the theater to check out a hot new release, and it turns out we still can't escape the shadow one of our ongoing director's retrospectives, where for the last month we've been taking a long, loving look at the work of everybody's favorite filmmaker—by whom I mean Steven Spielberg, obviously, and I only mention it in case you hold some kind of catastrophically incorrect opinion about the matter. It's even more fitting that we wrapped up our John Carpenter retrospective just a couple of months ago, too. The upshot is that I have all of Spielberg and Carpenter's filmographies swimming around in my brain, and Midnight Special—directed as well as "written" by up-and-comer indie darling Jeff Nichols—is an homage to both, in ways both direct and oblique, but mostly incredibly, insufferably direct, insofar as Midnight Special is a shameless, shamless rip-off of Starman, E.T., and especially Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a motion picture I think I'll have an even harder time enjoying, thanks to Nichols' terrifyingly rote efforts at "tribute." (Though I suppose the worst of it I didn't even notice till after I got home, and realized that this film's father-protagonist shared a first name with the deadbeat dad of Close Encounters, at which point I said, out loud, "Fuck you, Midnight Special.")
It's due, of course, to all these unmissable narrative similarities that critics have already feted Special as reminiscent of Spielberg and of Carpenter, a handy poster tagline that actually means very little—there are hundreds of movies "reminiscent" of Spielberg and Carpenter's works that do not remotely approach their standard of quality—and yet the bulk of them seem to have been gulled by Nichols' degraded attempt to hybridize them into believing that Special deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as either. I can only conclude that an enormous misconception has fallen upon them: that purity is synonymous with sterility. Purity is the signal quality of Spielberg's and Carpenter's bodies of work, after all; and in an exclusively descriptive way, Special is certainly "pure." Indeed, it is one of the dryest, dullest, most formulaic motion pictures you might see this year. It is a personality-free slog—meticulously filmed and edited, to be sure, but with the apparent intention that every drop of blood be drained from its lifeless body in the process. If it "evokes" any filmmaker, honestly, it's probably Stanley Kubrick: the magisterial pace, the stretches of quiet, the chilly sensation that we are observing these characters alongside an alien anthropologist; the deeply-interiored characterizations of unlikeable men. Then again, what it actually evokes in this regard is the innumerable efforts of all the imitators who have confused boredom with that old Kubrickian stateliness, a trick that only he and David Lean and David Fincher and Masaki Kobayashi and a very, very few others have ever really managed to pull off.
(And even then, it's still mostly a myth: Kubrick's movies are, for the most part, just about as full of incident and dialogue as any random movie you'd choose off the shelf. The idea is based primarily, I think, upon 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, and Eyes Wide Shut. And while I'm not that angry with anybody who finds them boring rather than transcendent, they have a huge advantage over something like, for example, Midnight Special, in that those films are windows upon magnificent and unfamiliar vistas—the future, the past, and Tom Cruise's brain, respectively—and thus they remain engaging spectacle even when their plots don't seem to be moving all that fast or in an easily-traced straight line. Special, in fact, is not really so meticulous as that—there are meticulous images, certainly, surrounded by large stretches of shot-reverse shot boilerplate and other kinds of uninspired camera set-ups—but while it certainly shares a sense of coldness with Kubrick, the spectacle it typically offers is merely present-day America, that is, basically the same quotidian world I see whenever I take a long road trip.)
If I told you the story of Midnight Special, it would sound more interesting than it is, but I should probably get to a plot summary at some point, so here goes: we are thrown into the middle of things immediately, and catch up with two men and a boy traveling across the country. Tuned to the Plot Station, we hear that Roy, one of the men, is the biological father of the boy, Alton, and he has kidnapped the child from his adoptive parents, and Roy is wanted by the police, which is probably why he and Lucas, the other man, have so many guns. They've blacked out the windows of their hotel room; the boy wears blue goggles and has recently taken to reading superhero comics, specifically some Supermans and, as we see in a close up, an issue of Teen Titans with the page turned to a large panel of Starfire. (So, perhaps you can see exactly where this is all heading, especially if you're a humongous, irredeemable nerd.) In any event, they abandon their lodgings at dusk, and flee across the endless highways of the American night. When they meet an obstacle, they are not above doing violence to remove it.
Meanwhile, we find the Evil Government Subplot in progress, and the FBI raids "the Ranch," a rural cult where it turns out Alton was born, and whose leader is, indeed, Alton's adoptive father. The Ranch has, in recent years, been organized entirely around Alton, and all the cryptic things he utters when he has his fits. (And these fits, we learn soon enough, have an entirely supernatural bent to them, and they involve both telepathy and lightshows.) In comes Paul Sevier, from the NSA. He shall be the face of the Evil Government, and, in keeping with this film's perverse dedication to being a version of Close Encounters with a less indifferent father figure, he is both clearly empathetic and has a French surname.
Alton's visions, it seems, have made it clear that something shall happen upon a certain date; and Roy has deduced from Alton's rantings exactly where. And that is why Roy has "stolen" the child, to get him to the appointed place at the appointed time. But the Government wants him, too, for in the midst of speaking in tongues, it's become quite apparent that he can hear and decode top secret military transmissions; and the Ranch wants him back, because to them he's their mainline to God.
It is as hidebound a scenario as there could possibly be, and it is the most unsurprising fucking movie you'll likely ever watch. The pleasures of it, if there were any to speak of, ought to come from the filmmaking—which is slack and dead, except in its few "big" moments—and from the characters—who are slack and dead, too, even in their big moments. The overriding direction Nichols appears to have given his stable of great actors is to play it as naturalistically as possible, and so they do, with Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton and Kirsten Dunst (for Alton's mother gets in on the action, eventually) all realistically bedraggled and exhausted from their exertions over the past few days, or rather years. (Adam Driver, as Sevier, is likewise devoted exclusively to underplaying his own growing sensawunda.) There is not a performance in the film that fails to be technically proficient, it's true; but, to paraphrase an actual Spielberg film, just because Nichols could do this doesn't mean that he should. The script itself is a barren wasteland of un-characterization and anti-fun: the family unit is elemental, like it ought to be, but so denuded of detail that it's a chore to watch them care about each other; and Lucas is such an underwritten cipher that he actively harms the film, by taking the focus away from where it should be, which is upon the relationship between Roy and Alton. (Meanwhile, if you think that there ought to be some kind of enjoyable dynamic, or any kind of dynamic whatsoever, between Roy, who was raised in the cult, and Lucas, who was not, you'd be absolutely right—unfortunately, Nichols would disagree, for both of them are written with almost the exact same soulless lack of anything that one might find specific and compelling about them.) Ah, but don't we have Dunst, capable of gently weeping on cue, and looking like she means it? We do. How glorious!
Perhaps ironically, but perhaps not, it's only Alton himself, played with a great deal of self-possession and a weird adult cadence by Jaeden Lieberher, who makes any real and lasting impression. But it's too bad that Special's refusal to reveal its secrets—a noble impulse, to be sure—means that Alton is ultimately left with nothing to do but to repeat the same cryptic nonsense he's been spouting the whole film. Now, Liberher spouts cryptic nonsense very, very well; but hearing it over and over does not actually make it more tantalizing—indeed, the very fact that the adults are not constantly discussing all the heady possibilities that Alton raises takes it largely out of the realm of naturalism, and drops it right into the real tonal register Special has marked out for itself, that of a barely-disguised miserablism. (Whereas the only time they do discuss it, they make it clear that they've only scarcely considered the single most obvious permutation of their stock scenario.)
But it does, however, have its moments; and I would guess that this is what folks have latched onto while singing its praises. They might only be moments, their thrills drowned within the molasses of the narrative, but they really are good ones. Nichols, aided by the cinematography of Adam Stone (who gets a few choice nighttime images of his own, in Special's mostly-lovely 'Scope presentation), has an incredible ability to stage surprises both inside and outside his frame. The best of these, involving what appears at first to be a meteor shower, is even worthy of the film's influences (its Youtube quality visual effects notwithstanding). On the other hand, the event's actual provenance is so opaque that it has to be explained in dialogue in the next scene, killing all the momentum it had imparted to the film.
The heartbeat of Midnight Special is just so faint. Even the final stab at ineffability, though in some respects quite beautiful, feels like it has some serious incongruities in how its parts fit together aesthetically (and however Nichols arrived at the decision to stage this scene in broad daylight, well, I really can't tell you). Worse, it's not all that notably ineffable. The feelings germinated by a viewing of Close Encounters or Starman come directly from our relationship with the characters, our identification with them, and the connection that Spielberg or Carpenter has made with us that allows us, as if by magic, to feel what they're feeling while they're feeling it. Nichol never gets around to actually building that bridge. (And, as for Carpenter, he would've burned through Nichols' script in 50 minutes, and asked him where the hell the rest of his movie was.)
Well, 50 minutes or 110 minutes, that's not what matters. It's in the apparently deliberate gulf between us and the characters where Midnight Special really fails; and neither glowing supernatural nonsense, nor a decent but unevenly-applied synth score, nor even a sweet nod to Christine, of all fucking things, can change the fact that it's populated solely by taciturn corpses, whose emotions never touched me.