I believe the opening is one of the most important parts of a film. It’s supposed to grab the audience, capture the people with its imagination. Essentially, the beginning is a promise that the next two hours (and ten dollars) won’t be a waste. Director, Jeff Nichols (“Take Shelter“, “Mud“) seems to believe that too, as we see in his latest work, “Midnight Special.”
We open on an Amber Alert of a kidnapped boy, Alton Sterling (Jaeden Lieberher), who appears to have been abducted by two men (played by Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton). They seem to be in a hurry to leave their motel room. Once it becomes dark, they slip goggles over Alton’s eyes and drive away in their beat-up 1972 Chevy, but not before triggering the suspicion of the motel clerk, who dials 911. Alton is not of this earth. Blinding laser beams shoot from his eyes and the strange languages that come out of his mouth have captured the attention of government officials.
Have I gotten your attention yet? I hope I created enough intrigue. That’s what Mr. Nichols does with Midnight Special as he thrusts us into the mysterious world of Alton, his captors, and the government suits who want him in their custody.
It is a chase movie, but not an action-filled one. Though the premise may sound akin to E.T. or The Iron Giant, Nichols’ fourth film is grounded on the relationship between Alton, his father (Shannon), and Sarah, (Kirsten Dunst) his mother. Alton’s parents are concerned, even frightened, with their son’s condition, but their personal fears aren’t enough to hand him over to the government. Dunst and Shannon are given moments to really act, and their ability to convey emotion without dialogue is truly impressive. Pathos and uncertainty dances in their eyes, making for really powerful scenes. Joel Edgerton is similarly captivating. There’s a moment where Edgerton’s character glances over at Alton and his parents, all smiling during a brief moment of happiness. We aren’t told of his backstory, but the longing look on his face in that moment speaks a lot of that character and to Edgerton’s skill as an actor.
I am less impressed with the script, which is nothing short of frustrating. As a moviegoer, I like it when my intelligence isn’t insulted, so I don’t mind when I’m forced to keep up with a complicated plot. The plot in “Midnight Special” is simple enough but, because there’s really no exposition, we aren’t given an explanation for why it’s happening. I had so many questions (What is Alton’s mission? How many powers does he have? Why is Lucas (Edgerton) involved?) that by the time the ending rolled about, I was ultimately disappointed because they weren’t really answered. As I said, the beginning of a movie is important to generate invested intrigue throughout, but that’s all “Midnight Special” seems to be: one long beginning. The conclusion seemed annoyingly abrupt because there never seemed to be a middle.
But that’s just me. Maybe you like the introspective nature of this science-fiction picture, a quality which makes it similar to “Gattaca” or “Ex Machina” rather than “Total Recall.” But those films asked me about ethical dilemmas by way of the plot. Here, I’m still trying to figure out what the plot means.
Written & Directed by Jeff Nichols. Starring: Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver, Bill Camp, and Jaeden Lieberher.
Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 2016.