‘Midnight Special’ a Potent Mix of Soul and Genre

by Eric Melin on April 8, 2016

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Solid Rock Fist Up]

It’s a tricky thing when you withhold information from an audience.

Two men speed in a car down a dark, deserted highway with a boy in the backseat. The kid (Jaeden Lieberher) is wearing goggles and reading a comic book with a flashlight. In the passenger seat is his worried, protective father (Michael Shannon).

We don’t know their relationship to the driver (Joel Edgerton), but he has access to night-vision goggles. We know this because he shuts off the car headlights in the dark so they can drive undetected. Know we know just how desperate these men are to get this boy away from something.

The opening scene of Midnight Special, written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud) is stirring, suspenseful, and moving. For that matter, so is the rest of the movie, right up until the very end.

Midnight Special‘s spiritual predecessor is the M. Night Shyamalan film Unbreakable, where Bruce Willis discovers he can’t be hurt and Samuel L. Jackson is the polar opposite of that. At the very end of Unbreakable, the audience realizes we’ve been watching a superhero origin story all along; that Willis has a superpower and that Jackson (Mr. Glass) is his arch-villain.

Something about the ending of Unbreakable always rubbed me the wrong way and made me feel cheated. Maybe it was the combination of the swelling music, the sudden amount of over-explanation, and the cheesy post-reveal end titles. I need to revisit the film to be sure, but I remember feeling like the ending was really mishandled.

I didn’t feel like Nichols “mishandled” the ending to Midnight Special, but I did feel let down. Here’s why:

Midnight Special is more than a mystery. It’s a story of sacrifice and dedication. It’s about believing in something bigger and more important than yourself. It’s about a father and a son.

Nichols is in full control of the emotional beats, the raising of the stakes, and the deepening investment by the audience. If the opening scene sounds tense, there’s at least three or four more where that came from. Because the boy has some kind of special powers, we know we are watching a science-fiction/fantasy film of some sort. But Nichols doesn’t care about anything that isn’t directly related to the matter at hand (they need to get somewhere and are being chased) and that laser focus brings Midnight Special to a higher level of emotional investment than most genre movies can attain.

The addition of very familiar genre elements at the end of the movie doesn’t fundamentally change the soul of the movie. Nevertheless, they are familiar. To what movies specifically, I won’t say because that would spoil too much and I firmly believe that the audience should be afforded the opportunity to experience the┬ástory in the carefully crafted way Nichols has put it together.

There are several intense moments and secondary characters (played by Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst, and Sam Shepard) that I keep coming back to, making me think I’ll be revisiting this movie again and again. I also think I need to see Unbreakable again, because as curious as I was about what was happening to Bruce Willis, I was never as enthralled as I was during Midnight Special.

Piquing curiosity is one thing. Delivering an emotional catharsis is another, and Nichols certainly does that in this thrilling, and frustrating, new movie.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Brandon Jones April 9, 2016 at 11:23 pm

I have seen it twice in the last two days. I’m a big Jeff Nichols fan and was really curious to see how he would pull this off. I really dug this and thought it was so much more than a sci fi flick. Really great direction. Joel Edgerton was great and Michael Shannon stunned me as usual.

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2 Eric Melin April 29, 2016 at 7:13 pm

Agreed. Curious if the ending sat any better with you the second time?

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