|'Key details are skimmed over in a manner for which Hollywood blockbuster directors would undoubtedly be lambasted'.|
Having counted Jeff Nichols' previous two releases, Take Shelter and Mud, amongst the finest films I've seen in the last few years, my expectations of Midnight Special were understandably high. The film marks the writer and director's third collaboration with Michael Shannon after Shotgun Stories (which I have yet to see) and the aforementioned Take Shelter, a flawless slice of indie sci-fi with which Nichols' latest has a lot in common in many ways, in addition to a shared leading man.
Frustratingly, Midnight Special falls somewhat short of what it could have been. All the ingredients for success are present and correct: a strong cast led by Shannon; a simple but effective structure reminiscent of '70s and '80s Spielberg; and the director's keen eye for impressive yet subtle style. Even so, Nichols fails to tie these elements together effectively in the same way as he has in his previous work.
The problem stems from a mismarriage of narrative and execution. Both Mud and Take Shelter before it offered modern myths that were driven by character craft and interaction, where the story didn't matter nearly as much as the people within it. Nichols kept key information vague in both of those films, which worked because our investment in the characters allowed it to. The writer and director tries this approach again here and is unfortunately scuppered by his own tale.
Essentially combining traditional takes on the sci-fi and road movie genres, Midnight Special's plot by its very nature needs to be the driving force behind everything else. But as Nichols quickly allows his storytelling to become increasingly tatty around the edges and threadbare at its centre, it's hard to invest in what we see on anything more than a basic level. Key details are skimmed over in a manner for which Hollywood blockbuster directors would undoubtedly be lambasted.
At one point, NSA agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), pursuing Roy (Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) as they flee across the country after abducting Roy's son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), draws circles around two numbers written on a whiteboard then proclaims to have cracked a code nobody else can decipher to work out where the men are headed. After this scene, Sevier's eureka moment is neither explained further nor mentioned again, having served its purpose in furthering the plot. There are numerous trying moments throughout Nichols' film just like this.
Away from its undernourished script, Midnight Special fares much better. The film looks wonderful, marrying a retro style with contemporary sheen in a similar manner to that seen in Nichols' earlier films. The visual effects too are used precisely and without ostentation even when they become ramped up considerably in the final act. Whilst impressive, however, the film's aesthetic qualities make it all the more disappointing that Nichols was unable to achieve the same level of success in his screenplay.