Midnight Special (2016)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Midnight Special</strong> (2016)

(On Cable TV, December 2016) There’s an interesting dichotomy at play in Midnight Special that’s likely to make Science Fiction fans as happy as it’s bound to infuriate them. Writer/director Jeff Nichols made a name for himself in crafting intimate character-driven dramas such as Take Shelter and Mud. But in tacking explicit science-fictional themes in Midnight Special, Nichols may have exceeded his capabilities. The good news are that his character-driven approach is still very much showcased here. He has an uncanny ability to portray the small details of his story and characters in an immediately compelling and credible way. On a moment-to-moment basis, Midnight Special is compelling for its quasi-tactile ability to portray reality. The small beats of the film are grounded to a phenomenal level, and it doesn’t take much for him to sketch his characters and make their adventures feel real. The opening sequence is immediately gripping, and there’s a fascinating moment later on when we see the result of a car chase rather than the chase itself. There are some serious skills on display here, and I would certainly like more directors (especially SF directors) to take notes on how to ground their concepts into believable real-world details. The way he uses his actors is also fascinating: Michael Shannon is magnetic as the lead character, a father trying to protect his son with special psychic powers. Kirsten Dunst shows up briefly in a lived-in role as a suburban mom, while Adam Driver gets an unusually sympathetic role as a scientist trying to understand what’s going on. But for all of the good that one can say about Midnight Special in five-minute increments, it’s a building disappointment to find out that the small moments and good sequences don’t build to anything particularly compelling. Answers are withheld, not all of the Weird Stuff is pulled together in a coherent whole, and the ending seems to peter out before the answers that it promised. There are some spectacular moments in Midnight Special, and some of them even include a terrific sense-of-wonder sequence at the climax of the film. But they don’t add up to something as good as its individual components, and that’s where Nichols’ lack of understanding of Science-Fiction as a genre shows up most clearly. Too bad, because Midnight Special is great in ways that don’t often have to do with SF.

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