January 27, 2023

Midnight Special–provokes more head-scratching than a midge-infested camping trip to the Highlands

8-year-old boy thought to be Son of Man

Abducted by dad for a Higher Plan

Well, what can I say? Gripping, for the most part. A slow burner, for the entirety. Head scratching, during, after and more so than a midge-infested camping trip to the Highlands or the late David Gest’s marriage to Liza with a Z. Writer and director Jeff Nichols, widely regarded as one of the best filmmakers of his generation who has recently completed shooting his fifth feature film Loving about the real life court case which led to the reversal of prohibitive interracial marriage laws, has proved once again that his star is on the rise. It’s just a pity that his Hitchcockian grip of suspense and the terrific performances from his cast (notably St Vincent child actor Jaeden Lieberher) are let down by oodles of loose ends and a painstaking crawl to the finish.

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Without giving too much away, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is abducted by his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and his childhood friend-turned-state trooper Lucas (Joel Edgerton) from a religious cult in the outskirts of Texas led by the steely-eyed Calvin (Sam Shepherd). Their reason for doing so is shrouded in mystery, but it’s something to do with Alton’s supernatural powers of “talking in tongues” in both foreign and unknown languages, moving matter with the power of thought, emanating a brilliant bright light from his eyes and dictating the content of his pastor’s sermons – the dates and numbers of which predict an imminent Second Coming and correspond with covert messages from the National Security Agency.

Where they are running to and why is also a mystery, but run they do to a preordained destination via a quick stop off at his mother Sarah’s (Kirsten Dunst) where an undefined happening will occur – the arrival of God, aliens, ghosts, a military foe or as Kirsty MacColl sung “There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis”. And in hot pursuit are the FBI, CIA, NSA and every other gun-toting three-lettered acronym agency you can think of. Oh, and Alton also possesses something of the Gremlins about him in that exposure to sunlight, though not water and midnight munchies, can prove fatal. And ET’s legendary wish to “phone home” makes a guest appearance towards the end of the film.

The end of the film – those five words epitomise my main frustration with Midnight Special. It. Takes. An. Eternity. To. Get. To. The end of the film. The slow-burning pace is not the problem because, for the most part, the action is gripping and the performances are excellent. And the audience are always in the dark about what is going to happen next and why the characters are pursuing their lines of thought and action. So kudos to Jeff Nichols on those points. It’s just that he seems to spend the final twenty minutes or so in search of a full stop.

My other gripe relates to loose ends and unanswered questions of which there are many, such as: How was the abduction executed and why? How did Roy manage to enlist his state trooper friend? What threat did the cult pose to Alton? Why did he have to be at a set place at a set time? And given that the nation’s security is at risk, surely a two car roadblock by a handful of heavies who can only fire in self defence is a tad on the Keystone Cops side. For the most part the film is superb, but the answers are blowin’ in the wind.

Verdict: 3/5

by Peter Callaghan

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