MIDNIGHT SPECIAL Review: Spielberg, Stifled

The latest Jeff Nichols is like the UNBREAKABLE version of ET.

I stand fairly alone on M Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable. I find the movie’s moroseness to be a huge turn-off, and I think the film’s dedication to sucking all the joy and excitement out of a superhero origin story to be perverse. But like I said, I stand fairly alone - most people love the hell out of that movie, and part of what they love are those exact qualities that turn me off.

Midnight Special reminded me a lot of Unbreakable. If Unbreakable was Shyamalan a reserved version of a superhero origin story, Midnight Special is Jeff Nichols doing the same to a Spielberg movie. It hits many of the Spielberg buttons - especially from ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind - but in a downbeat, reserved way. In a quiet indie film way. It’s Spielberg without the awe or wonder.

Nichols, who wrote and directed, opens in media res. Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton are two hard-seeming men in a motel room, packing guns into bags. They have the TV on and we see there’s an Amber Alert, a child has been snatched. The snatcher? Shannon himself. And we see that in the middle of the room, under a sheet and wearing goggles and noise-canceling headphones, is that missing child, poring over comic books with a flashlight. Have these men kidnapped this boy? Are they malefactors?

No! Nichols quickly dissuades us of this thought with a classic ‘save the cat’ moment - as the trio glide down back roads with all the lights in their muscle car turned off (Edgerton drives using night vision goggles) they see a car accident happen, and they are forced, by their inherent goodness, to get involved. Unfortunately that leads to a confrontation with the police…

Meanwhile a group of shady white dudes in bad suits meet in an office. They’re watching the news report about the missing kid, and they’re upset. The kid escaped them, and they want him back. It turns out they’re a religious group, and right as their sermon starts, the FBI raids them… looking for the kid.

Nichols spreads this information out slowly, backing you into the plot that is already in progress. At first it’s intriguing; he’s feeding you just enough to answer your questions steadily while maintaining a vast veil of secrecy. But eventually I found it dissatisfying for one major reason - we are entering the third act of this story. Just about every character in the movie has already had their arc before we meet them, and they’ve all already made the big choices in their lives that will lead them to the end of this movie. They all already know why the boy is special, they all believe the boy is special and they’ve all committed themselves to protecting the boy. None of them - with the exception of Adam Driver, who gets inserted into the film late - make any new choices over the course of this movie. They’re simply playing out the choices they made before the film starts.

Driver plays an NSA expert who is called in because this boy everybody wants is somehow able to access secret government communications satellites with his mind. Driver is the lightest actor in the film, and he brings a sense of wonder that the other actors - all playing hard, all playing tight-lipped - can’t. When he finally comes face to face with the boy I was excited - here would be when the fun would creep into the picture, as the confused but excited NSA guy interacts with the weird but adorable child. But no - Nichols gives them barely any scenes together. It feels like a missed opportunity, especially as Driver’s character is the only one who goes on any kind of personal journey.

The kid is played by Jaeden Lieberher, who is very good. Everybody, it should be noted, is very good, including Kirsten Dunst, who comes in late as the kid’s mother and really has little to do. Lieberher is stuck in an odd role, though - he’s basically playing sick ET for most of the film. You know the part in ET when the friendly alien we have grown to love takes ill and then the government shows up? That’s pretty much the entire first two acts of Midnight Special, but the kid - named Alton - never has his ET in the closet or ET getting drunk moments. We open with him getting sick, and he only gets iller as the film goes along. When he finally snaps out of that he is absolutely self-possessed; young Alton never has a moment of doubt or confusion about who is he or what he should be doing. Lieberher plays his authority well, but where’s the real kid? He’s sitting in the back of the car at the beginning of the film reading comic books, but otherwise he never feels like an actual 8 year old at any time.

Nichols’ previous film, Mud, captured child dynamics perfectly. I wish that he had approached Midnight Special from that angle (and maybe even cast his Mud star, Matthew McConaughey, over his Take Shelter star, Michael Shannon). There’s a vibrant energy in Mud that is totally missing from Midnight Special, a sense of play and fun for which Midnight Special has no time. I’m not sure that anyone ever smiles in this movie. Or if they do it’s one of those sad, fading smiles.

Even the film’s big ending - which I won’t spoil by any means - takes what would have been a lump-in-the-throat moment in a Spielberg film and renders it weirdly pedestrian. Nichols pulls back on the sweeping emotions in favor of more grounded, less fun moments. The big reveal in this movie happens as a car is flipping end over end, so our main characters don’t even get one of those cathartic shots where they gaze upon the wonder. They’re hanging upside down in a car, dazed and bleeding. It feels like a metaphor for the film’s whole approach.

I wonder about the entire film’s metaphor in general. Is this a movie about raising an autistic child? It certainly seems to use its scifi trappings to lean in that direction, with its alien child who spouts numbers and communes with electronics more than he communes with people. Dunst and Shannon seem like a couple who have been split apart by the overwhelming task of raising such a child, but they come together to help him achieve his destiny. If that is the metaphor, Midnight Special presents the task of raising a special needs child as a particularly grim one, with few moments of sweetness.

My final frustration with Midnight Special is with how well it’s made. Jeff Nichols is a very talented filmmaker, but the muted emotions in many of his movies distance them from me. I actually hated Take Shelter, which spent the whole runtime being equally coy and ashamed about its scifi premise, but I adored Mud, a film where Nichols was more willing to be warm. In Midnight Special he’s less specifically ashamed of the scifi - there are big scifi elements on display very early on - but he’s definitely pulling away from any big emotional displays. Last week I wrote about the way bias impacts film criticism, and it was as if I was predicting my reaction to Midnight Special - this is an exceptionally well made movie, and I understand why people genuinely like it, but it simply did not work for me on any level that I want from a film of this type.

I think if you love Unbreakable you’ll love Midnight Special, which feels like it could take place in the same universe. If you wanted a superhero origin tale without the joy and excitement, perhaps you’ll absolutely love a Spielberg movie where the awe and wonder have been stifled.