Initially spectacular sci-fi road movie from Jeff Nichols that loses its way
Written and directed by the talented Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter), Midnight Special harks back to the grounded 1980s sci-fi of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter, and is a film of two halves: one excellent, the other disappointingly patchy.
The set-up is immediately intriguing, as Roy (Michael Shannon) and his young son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) race through the night with accomplice Lucas (Joel Edgerton) in order to evade capture. Wanted by the cult they’re fleeing (headed by Sam Shepard) and the FBI (in the shape of Adam Driver), Alton has strange, unspecified powers that necessitate him wearing goggles – for whose safety we’re not sure. When a policeman stops them, Lucas has no choice but to shoot him. The stakes, it’s fair to say, could not be higher.
Filled with beautiful shots of the Texan dusk, these early sequences are exciting and expressive. Roy and Lucas are, both literally and figuratively, driving in the dark, putting all their faith in Alton even as they – and we – suspect it may lead them into danger. Once Roy and his son are reunited with Alton’s mum Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), Lucas considers them sadly and remarks, ‘I don't know if there’s a way out of this for y’all, but it’s a shame,’ a eulogy as much as an apology.
Wide-eyed and shifty-seeming, Shannon is compelling as always, and the serious, all but silent Lieberher (St Vincent) is a great little actor. Meanwhile, the way Nichols juxtaposes the mundane with the fantastical promises much, particularly during a SFX-filled petrol station scene. When the film reveals what’s really going on, however, it’s so lamely conceived, and cheaply mounted, it’s hard not to feel cheated. Indeed, once the narrative slows, the whole thing unravels completely, and when one character asks, weakly, ‘Can we go back to Texas now?’ you’ll wish you could too.
General release from Fri 8 Apr.