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Movie Review: Midnight Special

Made with a budget of maybe eighteen million, less than the craft services budget on some films playing in the multiplex, Midnight Special is a more emotional and evocative and awe-inspiring film than any twenty franchise films.
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Aisle Seat, Rob Slack

Midnight Special

Directed by Jeff Nichols

On Demand, Rental

"I was an electrician, certified in two states. What do I know of these things?"

Midnight Special opens with a dark screen, the sound of local Dallas-Fort Worth television commercials our only statement of where. The local news interrupts, an Amber Alert, our only statement of what. A news broadcaster fills the screen with scant information of the abductee, no photograph, a name, a vague description, the name and a photograph of the suspect, our only statement of who. A motel room door, the peephole covered with tape, windows blacked out with cardboard. Two men are packing to go, clothes and guns. A young boy sits under a sheet reading a comic book, wearing noise-cancelling ear muffs and swimming goggles. Midnight Special is a slow burn, the answers never come quickly or easily. It will be about forty minutes before we even understand how the two men even know each other. What they're running from, where they're running to and why, it is all answered but in answering some questions some new questions come to light. Midnight Special is the kind of movie that never tells, it always shows. It has a special kind of restraint and patience and trust in its audience that is like a glass of cool water on a very hot, very humid day. If I could use one word to describe Midnight Special, that word would be experiential.

Midnight Special is a special film, a truly remarkable film. Made with a budget of maybe eighteen million, less than the craft services budget on some films playing in the multiplex, Midnight Special is a more emotional and evocative and awe-inspiring film than any twenty franchise films. Director & writer Jeff Nichols trusts his actors and his minimal story threads to tell a story that moves on so, so many levels. It is a sci-fi film, a road movie, a chase picture, a character study, a statement on what it means to be a parent, a statement on loyalty, on trust and love and hate and paranoia. And it is a difficult movie to write about, because to say too much is to wreck the pleasure of discovery. Watching Midnight Special is like watching a rose come into bloom, each of its petals lifting, exposing the next. Or like watching a master artist make a piece of origami, as they take a simple piece of paper and effortlessly create art with the deceivingly simple folds. 

Getting into the plot, the story at the centre of Midnight Special, could spoil its spell on the viewer. I avoided any reviews of Midnight Special, I avoided the IMDB page, I avoided forums when the title was mentioned. What little I knew came from a passing mention on a podcast when the title came up in a discussion of the best films so far this year. The title was mentioned, the panel all agreed that it was possibly the best film of the year and a new masterpiece from Jeff Nichols. They mentioned that Michael Shannon was in it and that was it. They wouldn't say anymore at the risk of spoiling that gift of discovery that is so rare. It reminded me of the discussion surrounding Ex Machina about a year ago. I just heard 'find the film', but no-one would talk about the particulars, the details, the plot, anything about the film. Like Ex Machina, part of the experience when viewing Midnight Special for the first time is discovery. 

Things I can talk about. Michael Shannon is in the film. Probably more known for playing manic, for portraying rage-filled oddness, in Boardwalk Empire or in Premium Rush or his portrayal of Kim Fowley in The Runaways or Zod in Man of Steel or his reading of the insane Delta Gamma sorority letter on Funny or Die. When the movie going public thinks of Michael Shannon, if they think of him at all, it is probably that guy that seems to have some serious anger control issues. In 8 Mile, as Kim Basinger's boyfriend, he never seemed to be acting. He really did seem like he could fly off the handle at any moment and start beating on Eminem and Kim Basinger and a couple of crew members before he could be brought under control. Anyway, he's a guy to whom the words 'restrained stillness' are rarely applied. However, that is the centre of his performance in Midnight Special. There is a quietness, a stillness, a restraint in his performance that somehow makes the stakes higher, that ratchets the tension higher. He is a character that is trying to hold everything together, trying to maintain a calm exterior while the external stresses are piling up around him, are threatening to end him at every turn. 

Another great, subtle performance from an unlikely source is Kirsten Dunst. I have to admit, I've never understood the appeal of Ms Dunst. From her child vampire in Interview With the Vampire to her role in the Spider-Man films, I always found her to be trying a little too hard. I'm not saying she was without talent, I just found her a little too theatrical at times. But there is a maturity in her performance in Midnight Special that brings to my mind the actress she was always meant to be, the one the publicists and the studios were saying she was. In another film, her character would have been a secondary character. With another actress playing Sarah, she could have been essentially a featured extra, a few lines but inconsequential. With Ms Dunst working from Mr. Nichols's script and direction, her Sarah becomes the emotional centre of the film. She is both heartbreaking and triumphant. 

Joel Edgerton, recently seen in Black Mass with one of the few convincing South Boston accents in the film, plays Mr. Shannon's loyal friend, fixer and driver. And of course he's great in Midnight Special because he's Joel Edgerton. His accent is flawless, his walk, his casual deliberateness, his sense of decency, all speak to a childhood spent in the Texas Bible Belt. His Lucas is the breathing embodiment of laconic. The Australian-born Mr. Edgerton is one of the truly great actors of his generation and I will fight you if you say differently. 

Jeff Nichols' film is full of wide open spaces as the story moves across the American Bible Belt, the Texas landscape as big as the whole outdoors, a gas station oasis surrounded by freeway and plains, asphalt and fields stretching out to the horizon, secondary highways and back roads and swamps. Most characters are little more than thumbnail sketches, Adam Driver with a rumpled blazer and a backpack, Bill Camp in a suit amongst a sea of cultists in beige and prairie dresses. Their needs and wants and desires and histories summed up in a couple of telling lines. 

The film takes unexpected turns, it takes convention and tosses it out the window. Some of the pay-off, some of the answers may not feel completely satisfactory in the moment, but this is a film that takes up residence in your brain and won't let go. Midnight Special could be studied by film students, they could argue over the metaphors, over the meaning of the different vehicles that appear in the film, the meaning of the clothes and the colours of those clothes. A student could study this film and discuss the way that everything on screen speaks to the central relationships of the story. But Midnight Special is that truly rare specimen - it is also a piece of popcorn entertainment, a genre film, a chase film. The surface pleasures of Midnight Special are just as great as its deeper gifts. 

This is a film that needs to be seen. Seek it out, find it. You just might like it. 

And I know I've mentioned this before, but just in case anyone is still reading, if you love film and especially Hollywood film, check out one of my favourite podcasts of ever, You Must Remember This. It's a look at the secret or forgotten history of Hollywood's first century and is just about the best. Karina Longworth has just finished a series on the blacklist and the paranoia of America after World War 2 that was informative and educational and entertaining. If you like history and film, You Must Remember This is the place to turn to.