Midnight Special (Berlin Review)
There’s no away around it, and it pains me to believe it considering how big a fan I am of his previous films, but Jeff Nichols‘ much-anticipated Midnight Special is a disappointment. How a film that packs so much promise with its director, cast, and synopsis can leave such a flat impression is something that I’ll be mulling over during Berlinale and beyond. A story of a close-knit family with a boy who’s got special powers, on the run from a religious cult and the government, pulsates with potential. But not even the commanding Michael Shannon can save this film from being Nichols’ first major misfire.
As most disappointments often do, things start off so well. With zero exposition, we’re thrust into the action of Ray (Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton, at his understated best here) on-the-run with 8-year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) and before the brilliant title sequence even comes up, we’ve already got a hundred questions. Why is the young lad wearing goggles? Who are these men? Why is the government, who is making this national news, after them? The mystery is instantly gripping, and even more so once the Ranch—a cult that believes Alton’s words are gospel—gets involved. They want him because they believe he’s their savior, the FBI and the NSA are after him because they think he’s a weapon, and all Roy wants to do is bring him back to his mother (Kirsten Dunst) and make sure he’s where he’s got to be on Friday, March 6th, a.k.a. Judgement Day. Oh, and the boy speaks in tongues, has telepathic connections with radio signals, and shoots blue light from his eyes.
Basically, you’d have to check your pulse if you weren’t totally sucked in by the halfway mark. But as the mystery begins to unravel further, delusions of grandeur set in. The big mystery, all those gripping question marks, amount to one big “OK, that’s it?” shrug by the end. Adam Stone’s cinematography is excellent, the performances are predictably stellar, Nichols expertly directs a couple of stand-out sequences, but the story gets lost in a vague haze of questionable decisions and a final climax utterly deflated of the emotional oomph it’s supposed to have. It has its grand familial Spielbergian flourishes, but Midnight Special ends up being disappointingly ordinary and surprisingly forgettable.