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New Release Review - MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

Two men go on the run with a strangely gifted young boy.



Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Jeff Nichols

Starring: Michael Shannon, Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton, Sam Shepard, Jaeden Lieberher



On the surface, Nichols has fashioned a flawless imitation of an early '80s Spielberg/Carpenter sci-fi outing, but scratch beneath its polished and textured facade and there's little holding Midnight Special together. Just as Starman was lesser Carpenter, this is lesser Nichols, but it's still the work of a highly accomplished filmmaker, with enough surface sheen to keep nostalgic cinephiles engaged.



The American movie industry is currently obsessed with nostalgia. For mainstream Hollywood it's all about an easy way out of risk-taking by rebooting, remaking and expanding the beloved franchises of the past; and it's working, with Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens dominating last year's global box office. For a new generation of indie filmmakers it's more about paying heartfelt tribute to the films they grew up on, and no auteur of that era has proved as influential as John Carpenter, with movies as diverse as Cold in July, It Follows, The Guest and Green Room all owing a debt to the director affectionately labelled 'the master of horror'. Of course, Carpenter worked outside the horror genre on occasion, and it's one such venture, 1984's Starman, that provides the inspiration for Jeff Nichols' latest work, along with a dash of Spielberg and a touch of Stephen King's Firestarter.
A thrilling opening act sets up the film in deliciously intriguing fashion. We're introduced first to Roy (Michael Shannon), who is on the run with his eight-year-old son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), aided by his quietly professional friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Packing up their gear in a motel room late at night - while a news report tells us of the manhunt for the two men and their 'abductee' - the trio hits the road, Lucas donning a pair of night vision goggles so their car can drift along the darkened highway with its lights turned off. It's an ingenious moment, genuinely something I've never seen before, but such unique details are all too rare in a movie that becomes increasingly generic as it heads towards a disappointing climax.
We learn early on that there's something very special about Alton, and while the initially teased ambiguity over his significance keeps us intrigued, the more that's revealed of the plot, the more derivative it becomes. When Alton reveals his true nature, the reaction is one of "Seriously? That's it?", and the final act morphs into an indie version of a certain recent big budget sci-fi flop.
On the surface, Nichols has fashioned a flawless imitation of an early '80s Spielberg/Carpenter sci-fi outing, with a throbbing synth score by David Wingo and glorious 35mm Panavision photography by Adam Stone that recalls the work of Carpenter's ace cameraman Dean Cundy. Nichols directs with a masterful and mature grace, his camera always locked down, never resorting to shaky cam, quick cuts or showy tricks. There are a handful of standout sequences, with action blasting out of (at times quite literally) nowhere. Nichols movies have in the past been noteworthy for their acting performances, and that continues here, with Shannon and Edgerton doing great work in a movie whose characters barely raise their voices in even the most extreme situations.
But for all its positives, scratch beneath its polished and textured facade and there's little holding Midnight Special together. The plot is an amalgam of a handful of '80s flicks, and a pair of Texans hunting our protagonists are all too similar to the hired guns of Nichols' previous movie, the excellent Mud. There's also a lack of clarity with regard to certain plot elements, particularly regarding the motivations of a pastor/cult leader played by the great Sam Shepard. Just as Starman was lesser Carpenter, this is lesser Nichols, but it's still the work of a highly accomplished filmmaker, with enough surface sheen to keep nostalgic cinephiles engaged for the majority of its running time.
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