Movie Review: ‘MIDNIGHT SPECIAL’ – an ambitious sci-fi that’s at odds with itself

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Preston Barta // Editor

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL | 111 min | PG-13
Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Michael ShannonJoel EdgertonJaeden LieberherKirsten DunstAdam Driver and Sam Shepard

Jeff Nichols has become one of those filmmakers who makes you stand up and take notice with each new feature. Writing and directing three great and thought provoking films before – SHOTGUN STORIES, TAKE SHELTER and MUD – there’s no denying my ears perked up when word got out he was releasing a fourth, and a studio film nonetheless.

His latest, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, premiered at South by Southwest earlier this month and it brings together an impressive ensemble including Michael Shannon (who has been in all of Nichols’ movies), Joel Edgerton (also set to be in Nichols’ next film LOVING later this year) and Kirsten Dunst.

The film tells the story of a young boy (a talented Jaeden Lieberher) with a mysterious otherworldly power who’s on the run with his father (Shannon) to escape the government (who believe he’s a threat) and the church (who think he’s the next messiah).

L-R: Joel Edgerton, Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher and Kirsten Dunst star in MIDNIGHT SPECIAL. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

L-R: Joel Edgerton, Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher and Kirsten Dunst star in MIDNIGHT SPECIAL. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Nichols is an unquestionably talented filmmaker. He has a knack for bringing the best out of his actors and taking simple stories and layering them with rich complexity. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL has his signature touches here, such as his slow-burn structure and constant allure. However, after the film pulls you along through its mystery and setups, you arrive at an ending that feels rather hollow.

Sure, there are movies out there that have endings that fall flat and you wind up liking the journey more than the ending– not damaging your overall feel too much. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL feels different. Not to get too personal, but as a fan of Nichols’ previous work, I put a lot of trust in him in this story. There would be a great idea or scene, like the idea of the church or a scene where Edgerton’s character (who plays an old buddy of Shannon’s character) does something that catches your attention (an argument between his and Shannon’s character while a cop has them pulled over) and then it’s abandoned and never brought up again.

The film poses so many interesting questions and never really finds a way to clarify or present them in a way that causes you to go home and wrestle with it in a healthy manner. There are movies out there drenched in mystery that expectedly leave audiences with the same amount, if not more, questions as we had going in. Christopher Nolan (director of THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy) practices this notion and it has proved effective for him. That being said, there’s a big difference between a film that tells a good puzzling story to discuss amongst those whom you saw the movie with and one with mere plot holes, which is the case here. Viewers are left with too much to interpret and not everyone will enjoy that fact when Nichols ends his film, which is disappointing given the consummate filmmaker he is.

Maybe it was the pressure from the studio or the idea of going bigger getting to Nichols’ head, but, unfortunately, the good (acting, musical score and overall aesthetics) doesn’t trump the bad (unwritten characters and story), making MIDNIGHT SPECIAL more of a chore than a fun-filled adventure.

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL opens on April 1.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.