One of the treats of Midnight Special is its use of visual storytelling. The film takes its time in setting up its world and characters, letting images linger as mysteries swirl around in the twilight air. It’s about the journey more than the answers, and each development raises additional questions that Nichols is content to leave hanging. More important is his focus on the love a father has for his son, the love a mother has for her son, and the uniting belief in something greater, in something that inspires wonder and keeps us going. It’s this sense of science fiction wonder balanced out with the focus on family intimacy that drives the film, and this approach results in the evocative moments that Nichols-directed films can craft.
The weaknesses include some underdevelopment in the cases of Sam Shepard’s religious cult storyline and the ending in general, and I suspect those are a few of the elements Nichols was referring to when he said that he felt like he had to cut a bunch from the story he wanted to tell. Also, even though the film finds some highly affecting moments in its depiction of family, the writing for the characters doesn’t draw you in in the same manner that, for instance, Take Shelter–a masterpiece in my eyes–was able to accomplish. Nevertheless, those aforementioned moments are certainly powerful in their own right, the result of a grounded human story developed with a backdrop of sci fi. Perhaps the most apt visual representation of what this film is going for is its central image: a boy in the darkness with a searing white light emanating from his eyes, illuminating what could otherwise be a cold, dark world.
-Shoutouts to David Wingo for his score and longtime Nichols d.p. Adam Stone for the photography. Stone will be back for Nichols’s second 2016 film, Loving (as will Joel Edgerton and–surprise!!–Michael Shannon).
-Nichols has stated that he drew from films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind for this, and that influence is definitely felt throughout. Same goes for John Carpenter’s Starman.
-The cast is pretty good across the board. Driver’s character is fun, Edgerton’s character has more depth than I initially thought, Dunst follows up Fargo with a less good–but still good–performance, and Shannon does his usual grimace (he’s great in this). Lieberher is not bad, so that’s a plus.
Photo credit: Warner Bros., Midnight Special