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MIDNIGHT SPECIAL Post-Release

post #1 of 53
Thread Starter 

Jeff Nichols' latest can be summed up as a sci-fi chase film. Two men (Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton) have apparently kidnapped a boy named Alton Meyer, and are the subject of a Federal manhunt. But it turns out this isn't a simple kidnapping. Not only does one of the men have a connection to Alton, the boy has mysterious abilities that make him not only of interest to the government, but to a cult who, it transpires, Alton was rescued from. The source and extent of these abilities grow ever stranger as the two men and the ever-weakening boy, later joined by a woman (Kristen Dunst) make their way towards a location in the wilderness of Florida , desperate to be there by a specific time and date. What will happen when they arrive?

 

Ultimately, this film works best when it embraces its thematic core as an allegory for parents' fears of losing their children. Michael Shannon does genuinely beautiful work, even without a lot of dialogue, as you see the depth of his devotion and fear grow ever deeper in his eyes. Even as outsiders attempt to paint him as a kidnapper, even as his love for Alton drives him to do what under normal circumstances would be awful things, Shannon remains completely human and sympathetic. For a man who tends to be cast as weirdos, monsters, and lunatics, Shannon does a great job of playing a pretty regular guy in extraordinary circumstances, whose driving motivation is his love for his boy and his belief in Alton, no matter what it costs himself, Alton, or anyone else.

 

Dunst doesn't show up until around Act 2 of the film, but she does similarly powerful work. The emotional power of the climax (such as it is) largely comes from her reaction to it. It's really nice supporting work.

 

The third key performance belongs to Joel Edgerton, the outsider/old friend of Shannon's who has been roped into this madness. His friendship with Shannon - and his growing devotion to the whole family unit and growing belief in Alton's powers - is really nicely underplayed throughout.

 

However, Alton himself remains a bit of a cipher. He's much more a vessel for his parents' fears (and for his strange powers) than a character in his own right. The cult (even anchored by Sam Shepard and with a splendidly menacing heavy who ruminates on his position with the line "I am an electrician, certified in two states. What do I know of such things?") ends up being a bit of a red herring. The government team, however, is anchored by Paul Savier (a very funny Adam Driver), all gawky excitement peeking through the surface of bureaucracy.

 

Jeff Nichols clearly made a very conscious choice to lose as much exposition as he could, and instead let the story play out visually as much as possible, which leads to some beautiful and deliciously suspenseful sequences. The opening, in which Shannon and Edgerton move their "kidnappee" to the car as quickly as possible without trying to draw attention. The shocking first reveal of Alton's "communion" powers. The gas station, with the sickening realization of what exactly Alton means when he says "I'm sorry". The scene where Alton and Paul come face-to-face at last.  The family making its desperate last drive through the government blockade to reach their destination.

 

The climactic reveal may not work for some. Nichols is attempting a daring leap here, portraying a vision of the sublime in a manner which could come off as too cheesy or too mysterious. But what resonates is Dunst's face - even as she reacts to the wonder, it's always with an awareness that it is coming at an awful cost. To paraphrase a line of the film, parents will always worry for their children. That's the deal.

post #2 of 53
Good write-up, waiting to see this.
post #3 of 53

I love a movie that plays its cards so tight to its chest. Great summation, Dent. Walked out of this and was still charged from the events, it was so damn sublime. And that ending worked with me on so many levels; it's like Spielberg and Carpenter had a baby and this great sci-fi infused road movie was born. Can't wait until it goes wider to hear other Chewers' reactions.

 

And goddamn, Michael Shannon. To be as determined about anything as this guy is, I think my life would be much clearer.

post #4 of 53

Wonderful to see this film's tale unfold.

 

I'd say I didn't get much awe or goosebumps from the big ending (which was definitely going for it), but I'd highly recommend the film anyway just for the pleasure of seeing the story told.  

 

Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Considering just how understated/reserved the film is when it comes to providing explanations of what's going on, I'd rather the film have stuck to the mystery and not shown us...
 
TOMORROWLAND???
post #5 of 53

Finally got around to seeing this the other night. Good, not great.

 

It's interesting they just announced a remake of John Carpenter's Starman, which is what this basically was.

 

One thing that annoyed me is that in movies like Starman and E.T., those beings had obvious benefits for the protagonist and/ or humanity. 

 

Other than emphasizing how special the boy was repeatedly, it would have been nice to see him use his powers for something "big". Granted, there was an internal and emotional benefit to Shannon and that's fine but I would have like to have seen more from the boy. 

post #6 of 53

I already kind of wished I hadn't wasted time on Tomorrowland, now I'm downright bitter that I watched it because I could not get the comparisons to that movie out of my head at the end of this film, which I otherwise loved.

 

There is a very interesting mix of cheese and sentimentality direct from the sub-genre that Nichols is very intentionally placing this film in alongside of Nichols' signature minimalism and somewhat no-nonsense storytelling and mostly unaffected performances. For two-thirds of the movie that mix works like an absolute charm for me and the setpieces, while small, are just incredibly well done and with a lot of focus and vision. The characters are sketched in a way that I can appreciate, even if at times we feel like we know next to nothing about them and their personalities are a tad obscure. But then I think that strange mix of cheese and understatement comes to a somewhat awkward head with the conclusion, which is both powerful and yet somewhat jarring in the way that it feels like something of a departure from the rest of the film's M.O. I like the idea of modern sci-fi chase thriller that's mostly a slow-burn, slow-build to a really big event, but also wonder if for this particular film if it might have worked better if Nichols had stayed with the less-is-more storytelling for the conclusion, too, or at least a bit more of a balance of that. Maybe just a few less FX shots, a bit more subtlety in the score, and (spoiler) no close-ups of the, uh, higher beings... that could have made a nice difference.

 

At any rate, I didn't dislike the ending...in fact, there were a number of things that I did like about it, particularly in the denouement, but the biggest detriment for me is actually the stupid Tomorrowland association. and not that the basic concept at the end is some original idea to either film, but just that a couple key ideas are the same and are presented in a similar way, even aesthetically and in terms of designs, to the point that I'm sure if/when Nichols saw Tomorrowland, he was probably like, "Awww fuuuuuuck..."

 

but at least there was no evil Hugh Laurie.

post #7 of 53

Liked this a lot. It's definitely the what if M. Night Shymalan directed a John Carpenter version of ET, but I dig that. Cool thumping soundtrack, long takes, tight control over the tone.

 

The minimalist dialogue and still scenes made for great ambiguity and built tension nicely. Driver is having a lot of fun, and I wish he could've been in the movie more. 

 

Didn't see Tomorrowland, so any comparisons didn't affect me.

 

Read around the 'net that this can be interpreted as a metaphor for parents raising an autistic child, and I see that. Alton is always what he is, there's never any breakdown moment where he admits to being scared or not knowing his place in the world. It's more about how his parents react to him. 

 

Speaking of which, Dunst really didn't have much to do. If I have a problem with the movie it's that Shannon should be the one seeing Alton's ascension out of the Matrix or whatever. 

post #8 of 53

My favorite detail: Dunst's hair, not braided tight like the women still in the cult, but still braided.

post #9 of 53

Yeah, I dunno about this one. I wanted to like it, while at the same time I disliked a lot of it.

 

It lacked any thematic subtext that I could see, which made the whole thing feel like an empty stylistic exercise. The shot composition, lighting, and general camerawork are great taken on their own. The editing and pacing of many scenes aggravated me, though.

 

They kept holding moments a few beats longer than necessary, for no discernable purpose. The actors stand there with intense facial expressions, waiting for someone to give them a line...any line. My least favorite bit of movie filler dialogue makes an appearance:

 

"...........I need to talk to you."

"..................................okay."

 

I get that the director is going for a low key vibe, or some kind of take on naturalism, but it all comes off so deliberate and forced. When he threw in the streaky light flare thing on top, I could feel JJ Abrams' nipples getting hard. And just because you have some ominously pulsing keyboard bass notes, that doesn't make you John Carpenter. By the halfway mark the movie felt like it was already parodying it's own stylistic mixture.

 

Adam Driver does well with the "young Jeff Goldblum" routine. Michael Shannon furrows his brow, and fills the frame with his big head and fabulous hair, while occasionally muttering minimalistically. Joel Edgerton is affable. Kirsten Dunst squints.

 

The Magical Young Boy trope is one of my least favorite sci-fi movie tropes. It's why I dread ever sitting through Looper again, despite that movie's good points. It's at least as tired and worn out as the pale skinned, long dark hair Horror Movie Girl.

 

All the time spent on the cult subplot in the first half added up to precisely diddly squat, other than setting up why two guys are after them. They could've been on the run from anyone, for any reason, and the story function would've been the same.

 

I'll spoiler the ending bits:

Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Michael Shannon glares out the car window, his brow furrowed, steely eyes scanning the horizon. "Tomorrowland? We did all this for fucking Tomorrowland? THAT piece of crap? That one that bombed, and nobody liked?"

 

Overall, there is a lot of technical craft on display, but it didn't feel like the director had a story of any substance to tell here. He had a grab bag of half formed ideas, a few moderately interesting bits of imagery, and he threw them up on the screen.

post #10 of 53
Quote:
Originally Posted by Kyle Reese View Post
 

Yeah, I dunno about this one. I wanted to like it, while at the same time I disliked a lot of it.

 

It lacked any thematic subtext that I could see, which made the whole thing feel like an empty stylistic exercise. The shot composition, lighting, and general camerawork are great taken on their own. The editing and pacing of many scenes aggravated me, though.

 

They kept holding moments a few beats longer than necessary, for no discernable purpose. The actors stand there with intense facial expressions, waiting for someone to give them a line...any line. My least favorite bit of movie filler dialogue makes an appearance:

 

"...........I need to talk to you."

"..................................okay."

 

I get that the director is going for a low key vibe, or some kind of take on naturalism, but it all comes off so deliberate and forced. When he threw in the streaky light flare thing on top, I could feel JJ Abrams' nipples getting hard. And just because you have some ominously pulsing keyboard bass notes, that doesn't make you John Carpenter. By the halfway mark the movie felt like it was already parodying it's own stylistic mixture.

 

Adam Driver does well with the "young Jeff Goldblum" routine. Michael Shannon furrows his brow, and fills the frame with his big head and fabulous hair, while occasionally muttering minimalistically. Joel Edgerton is affable. Kirsten Dunst squints.

 

The Magical Young Boy trope is one of my least favorite sci-fi movie tropes. It's why I dread ever sitting through Looper again, despite that movie's good points. It's at least as tired and worn out as the pale skinned, long dark hair Horror Movie Girl.

 

All the time spent on the cult subplot in the first half added up to precisely diddly squat, other than setting up why two guys are after them. They could've been on the run from anyone, for any reason, and the story function would've been the same.

 

I'll spoiler the ending bits:

Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Michael Shannon glares out the car window, his brow furrowed, steely eyes scanning the horizon. "Tomorrowland? We did all this for fucking Tomorrowland? THAT piece of crap? That one that bombed, and nobody liked?"

 

Overall, there is a lot of technical craft on display, but it didn't feel like the director had a story of any substance to tell here. He had a grab bag of half formed ideas, a few moderately interesting bits of imagery, and he threw them up on the screen.

I can see what you're saying about holding moments too long. There was a scene in particular when Shannon was threatening the former cult member that had used Alton's vision, or whatever, and it seemed like Shannon was starting to raise his hand (raising a gun?) and the scene cut away. And I assumed it was leaving ambiguity about whether or not he shot the guy, but then later the cult hitman guys show up and there's no shock to the moment.

 

BUT *Bradito voice* I liked it.

post #11 of 53

I felt like there was more ambiguity at the end of Take Shelter, which worked for that movie...

 

(Spoilers for Take Shelter)

The apocalyptic storm seemed to be coming, but the question of if it really is what Michael Shannon was seeing all along was kind of rendered irrelevant.  All that mattered was the family decided to stay together.  The central torment of Shannon's visions ended as soon as his wife started to see things the same way... and what did that portend for their kid?  Hard to say.  Could be good, could be horrible.  But it's the commitment that was important.

(End spoilers for Take Shelter)

 

Here, we definitively see that the son's futuristic looking world exists, but in this case, that lack of ambiguity is important.  As the father's junky car is upside down, sliding on the pavement, falling apart piece by piece, the better world all parents envision for their children is right side up before him.   It's sort of like The Road (the book; I didn't see the movie) in the sense that the father was all determination, desperate to get his son to the chosen destination, no matter what it took, and uncertain if it even meant anything beyond hope.  But here, we see the manifestation of that hope in the city, literally built right on top of our own.

 

The cult was something of a red herring, yes, but besides being a plot driver, it's also about the way Nichols dismisses them; like Shepard caving so easily to the government, "it's the boy, that was all the boy." or the aforementioned line about the guy being a licensed electrician.   In the end Shannon stares out at the sun, and with his white prison uniform and bits of tape or whatever wreathing his head, he almost looks like some kind of holy man at worship.  That's the real profundity.  All the grandiose circumstances and supernatural elements are just window dressing for simple truths about the function and importance of family.

post #12 of 53
This was just OK. "Empty stylistical exercise" is a good way to sum it up. I feel like these 80s/Amblin clones don't understand the very movies they're attempting to copy.
post #13 of 53

I wouldn't call this empty, at all. However, I do think its themes maybe weren't fully realized by the end. Needed either more ambiguity at the end to let those themes really breathe in a different way or perhaps a bit more connective tissue to solidify them.

 

I enjoyed the movie, though, and would have gotten some geek pleasure from the reveal at the end if, again, I hadn't already seen Tomorrowland.

post #14 of 53

I gotta disagree with you there, Ambler.  This was not going for the cheap nostalgia of the modern Amblin clones at all.  Like, at all.  I don't think it was as good as Take Shelter, and I can see why it left some people feeling like "is that it??", but it was definitely of a piece with Nichols' other films, (but particularly Take Shelter.)  Nichols seems interested in how family functions and struggles to hold it together in an increasingly anxious modern world, especially when increasing numbers of us no longer rely on old fallbacks like Christianity to define us and give us direction.

 

Another thing I really liked about this movie is how it very matter of factly eschewed the hyper-violence we see in even movies essentially meant for kids nowadays.  There was suspense and violence, of course, but if you look back, how many people died?  The woman in the car and the state trooper weren't dead, and had an ambulance on the way.  The cult member who was shot and Michael Shannon both appeared to only have flesh wounds.  And, most tellingly, the boy's dangerous powers left not trace of radiation.  I don't think it was making any kind of statement about violence in movies, except that, why kill a bunch of people if you don't need to?  The movie didn't want to do anything "cheaply."

post #15 of 53
Quote:
Originally Posted by wasp View Post
 

I wouldn't call this empty, at all. However, I do think its themes maybe weren't fully realized by the end. Needed either more ambiguity at the end to let those themes really breathe in a different way or perhaps a bit more connective tissue to solidify them.

 

I enjoyed the movie, though, and would have gotten some geek pleasure from the reveal at the end if, again, I hadn't already seen Tomorrowland.



I can see wanting more connective tissue, but I absolutely think the lack of ambiguity was important.  By the end there wasn't supposed to be mystery to the kid.  The whole being of light/advanced world stuff was, to me, a pretty simple metaphor that the boy was not how the cult or the government saw him, but how his parents saw him, and believed in him.

post #16 of 53

Yeah, I didn't get an Amblin vibe from this at all.  It was entirely focused on the POV of the adults, and perhaps as a consequence, the atmosphere was one of oppressive anxiety rather than the wonder associated with that brand.

post #17 of 53
I think there was SOME amblin vibe. Mostly superficial in order to get to something else.
post #18 of 53

Well, I mean it was clearly inspired by Spielberg (As well as Carpenter, and others.)  But just as an offshoot to do its own thing.  TONALLY it was not Amblin'.  Schwartz makes a good point that it's informed by the perspective and concerns of the parents, rather than children.

post #19 of 53

Is Close Encounters not considered an 'Amblin' film?  That one isn't focused on the kids.

post #20 of 53
Quote:
Originally Posted by mcnooj82 View Post
 

Is Close Encounters not considered an 'Amblin' film?  That one isn't focused on the kids.

 

I don't know if it was technically produced by Amblin, but it's not one that I would think of when the name is mentioned.

post #21 of 53

Amblin didn't exist until 1981, and E.T. was the first Spielberg Amblin film.

post #22 of 53

I see I see!

 

When people say Amblin, I just kinda imagined it's referring to a vague sensibility of Spielberg's work involving wonder!

post #23 of 53

The early Amblin films were mostly from a child's or teen's point of view though.  CE3K is totally from Roy's POV, although you could argue Barry's arc is a sort of proto-Amblin.

post #24 of 53
Quote:
Originally Posted by mcnooj82 View Post
 

I see I see!

 

When people say Amblin, I just kinda imagined it's referring to a vague sensibility of Spielberg's work involving wonder!

 

It is.

post #25 of 53

then why not MIDNIGHT????

post #26 of 53

You can expand the Amblin umbrella as wide as it makes you comfortable.  But the point is it's unfair to this movie to compare it to junk food like Super 8 or Stranger Things (and I mostly enjoyed Stranger Things), as Amblerin was doing.  It's not an empty stylistic exercise.  It doesn't even particularly feel like the Amblin' aesthetic.  It feels more like a 70's road movie, with some sci-fi trappings.

 

Yes, trappings!

post #27 of 53
NO!!!
post #28 of 53
Quote:
Originally Posted by mcnooj82 View Post
 

then why not MIDNIGHT????

 

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Schwartz View Post
 

Yeah, I didn't get an Amblin vibe from this at all.  It was entirely focused on the POV of the adults, and perhaps as a consequence, the atmosphere was one of oppressive anxiety rather than the wonder associated with that brand.

post #29 of 53
Quote:
Originally Posted by mcnooj82 View Post

NO!!!

 

Look upon ye culture and weep.

post #30 of 53

Yeah, I've seen that getting shared around.

post #31 of 53
The Amblin comment was more of a throwaway term used for this recent crop of films/TV inspired by that generation (hence 80s/Amblin) and it's fantasy mixed with reality vibe. Nichols is clearly an Amblin baby. The kid in Midnight Special starts getting sick from expelling his powers/being disconnected from his "peoples", an E.T. reference. The mother abandoning the kid is a role reversal from Spielberg's stuff, etc...
post #32 of 53

YEAH!!!!!

post #33 of 53

I totally get being critical of the recent spate of cheap nostalgia plays (which obviously applies to more than just Amblin inspired fare) in both film and television.  I just wouldn't lump this in with them.   Yes, it references those films, but it is neither empty, nor stylistically like them... at least not in the main.

post #34 of 53

it's no jj you're saying!

post #35 of 53
Its funny...

The day after I wrote my Amblin comment (and mind you I was merely guessing based on the evidence), I listened to an older podcast with Kirsten Dunst where she called Midnight Special "like an Amblin movie"

SO THEREEEEE!!#%@!!@1
post #36 of 53

I stand down, sir.

post #37 of 53
It was the nerdist podcast if anyone's interested.
post #38 of 53

Yeah, I'm pretty sure I heard that interview as well as interviews with Nichols where he brought it up too.

 

As has been noted, it's a convenient catch-all term to get across a vague idea.

post #39 of 53

Cue actor saying "it's like Kubrick!" about their movie that is almost nothing like Kubrick.

 

Very few touchstones.

post #40 of 53

"My new film is very much in the cinematic tradition of Simon West.  It's very Westian."

post #41 of 53
Didn't see this interview with Nichols, gives a bit more insight into why certain visual design choices were made for the ending.

https://www.buzzfeed.com/adambvary/midnight-special-ending?utm_term=.jlG7blGZY8#.wsA6XlpzPZ

Also he gets asked about Tomorrowland.
post #42 of 53

nice read.

 

I like that someone asked him about Tomorrowland and I'm glad Nichols was as bummed as I was about the inadvertent similarities.

post #43 of 53
Quote:
Originally Posted by wasp View Post

nice read.

I like that someone asked him about Tomorrowland and I'm glad Nichols was as bummed as I was about the inadvertent similarities.

Ditto. I'm always fascinated by coincidental lineups like those - it's a very specific kind of idea, and to have 2 films in such proximity follow through on both the idea and with a very similar aesthetic is uncanny. Makes you wonder about the "collective unconscious," as Nichols put it.

Related, I have yet to see Mud - having loved both Take Shelter and Midnight Special, am I in for a film in the same spirit, or something different?
post #44 of 53

I remember the people at WETA just getting along, really proud of how they visualized the Army of the Dead for RETURN OF THE KING...

 

and then they saw the trailer for the first Pirates of the Caribbean.

 

 

"sheeeeeeeiiiiiiiiit..."

post #45 of 53
Quote:
Originally Posted by Analog Olmos View Post


Ditto. I'm always fascinated by coincidental lineups like those - it's a very specific kind of idea, and to have 2 films in such proximity follow through on both the idea and with a very similar aesthetic is uncanny. Makes you wonder about the "collective unconscious," as Nichols put it.

Related, I have yet to see Mud - having loved both Take Shelter and Midnight Special, am I in for a film in the same spirit, or something different?


it has the same sort of pacing (maybe a tad bit more leisurely) and tonally is pretty similar but for most of its length it doesn't have quite the same sort of tension as Take Shelter and Midnight Special.

 

it REALLY has that great sense of place that his films have, the same feel for naturalistic dialogue about a somewhat unnatural situation (though the situation is more Mark Twain than sci-fi in Mud), and it has his best character work, imo. great performances from McConaughey and Sheridan and it has a great ending, probably my favorite ending of Nichols' movies. and also has the most emotionally affecting scene for me in any of his movies, it's a scene that happens in a bar, you will know it when you see it. one of the all time great "loss of innocence/naivete" moments that I have seen in a film but done in such a quiet, understated, and melancholy kind of way. it's beautiful.

 

also check out his debut Shotgun Stories, that's quite good for a low-key, low-budget family drama. I think it and Mud are really akin. It's like those two movies are one set of twins for Nichols and Take Shelter and Midnight Special are the other set, they are just alternated from each other in his filmography.

post #46 of 53

Mud is distinctive from his other films because it doesn't have any (overt) supernatural elements.

post #47 of 53

yeah, that's one of the aspects that it and Shotgun Stories share.

 

will be interesting to see if his next film follows the pattern and it's another drama.

 

cuz so far it has been drama - scifi - drama - scifi.

post #48 of 53
Quote:
Originally Posted by wasp View Post


it has the same sort of pacing (maybe a tad bit more leisurely) and tonally is pretty similar but for most of its length it doesn't have quite the same sort of tension as Take Shelter and Midnight Special.

it REALLY has that great sense of place that his films have, the same feel for naturalistic dialogue about a somewhat unnatural situation (though the situation is more Mark Twain than sci-fi in Mud), and it has his best character work, imo. great performances from McConaughey and Sheridan and it has a great ending, probably my favorite ending of Nichols' movies. and also has the most emotionally affecting scene for me in any of his movies, it's a scene that happens in a bar, you will know it when you see it. one of the all time great "loss of innocence/naivete" moments that I have seen in a film but done in such a quiet, understated, and melancholy kind of way. it's beautiful.

also check out his debut Shotgun Stories, that's quite good for a low-key, low-budget family drama. I think it and Mud are really akin. It's like those two movies are one set of twins for Nichols and Take Shelter and Midnight Special are the other set, they are just alternated from each other in his filmography.

Awesome, thanks! Will definitely move this to my short list.
post #49 of 53

Yeah, I think the supernatural elements of his movies thus far are really almost incidental.  He uses them as a way to explore the themes that interest him, which you could say about any auteur, of course; but given that those themes are much more personal and intimate than, say, someone like Christopher Nolan, it wouldn't surprise me if he never made another movie like that.   (Unless he wants to do genre work for money.)

 

Now watch him make some hugely ambitious Sci-Fi movie.

post #50 of 53
And that, boys and girls, is how Jeff Nichols went on to remake Alien Nation.
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