Review: Midnight Special (2016)

Director: Jeff Nichols

***

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Look at a trailer or poster for Midnight Special, and the name of one director will spring to mind. It’s unlikely to be that of its own director (and writer) Jeff Nichols, and that’s the way he wants it. When a new generation of directors raised on the movie brats get their hands on sufficient talent and budget, their original influences can dominate the landscape. In the case of Midnight Special, Nichols not only demonstrates a love and knowledge of the work of Steven Spielberg, but reminds us that his work is more than the PG-13-baiting list of favourites that immediately springs to mind. Spielberg’s legacy is determined largely by his capacity to entertain the masses, but this inclination tends to overlook his capacity for dark, adult thrillers. You don’t even have to look to Munich or Bridge of Spies for proof; the Indiana Jones series and Jurassic Park owe some of their reputations to the subversive dark streak that runs through the Bearded One’s CV. Midnight Special borrows its plot from some Spielbergs, and its tone from others, blending them into an effective reclamation of his oeuvre for all audiences.

We open in Sugarland Express territory, with Roy (Michael Shannon) and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) hiding out in a motel, away from the law. With them is Alton (Jaeden Liberher), who Lucas and Roy have just kidnapped from the religious sect led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepherd). Like his namesake, Calvin is convinced the future is predetermined, specifically in the multilingual ramblings that periodically emerge from Alton, who has become an oracle to the cult. Alton may or may not be Roy’s son, but that’s as much certainty as we get in the early scenes. The boy is privy to some variety of paranormal abilities, but at first the film is less concerned with his powers than with Roy and Lucas’ efforts to keep him from the cult. As Roy, Lucas and Alton race to get further away, glimpses come and go of Alton’s abilities but, until the climax, Midnight Special plays out for the most part like a chase thriller in the early Spielberg mould (Think Duel or the aforementioned Sugarland Express). Roy and Lucas know of Alton’s abilities, as does Roy’s wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). On their trail is FBI investigator Paul Sevier (Adam Driver); much like Sevier, the audience learns of Alton’s abilities and influence second-hand (Ideas of secondhand witness run throughout; even nominal kidnappers Roy and Lucas watch reports of Alton’s abduction on the news). Nichols is too talented a writer and director to show his hand too early, and so builds anticipation by revealing the truth bit by bit. The interviews Sevier conducts with members of the cult hint at a possible armageddon, but even they can only speculate. The thrill comes from the unknown; the growing desire to find out Alton’s identity, be it alien, fallen angel or something else entirely, is Midnight Special’s lifeblood.

Roy helps Alton elude the authorities like Elliot helped E.T., but the narrative isn’t the only thing Midnight Special has in common with Spielberg’s film. The most identifiable trait it shares with his work is the care the characters have for one another. With the sect, the FBI and the military all bearing down on them, the familial bonds at the heart of the film are its most endearing and memorable aspect. Roy, Sarah and Lucas’ concern for Alton is uncynical, unquestioning, and certainly not naive. All are risking their lives for this little boy who may not even be a boy, but their connection to him is all that counts. There are hints that Roy and Sarah’s relationship is recovering from a Spielbergian absent-parent trauma, but it’s never over-elaborate or overplayed. It helps to have fine actors like Dunst and Shannon (The latter impressing in a relatively straight-and-narrow role) playing against Liberher, delivering a likeable turn shorn of any precociousness. Interestingly, Edgerton may be the best of the lot. Between his performance in his directorial debut The Gift and his unpolished everyman turn here, Edgerton is proving to be a subtle chameleon. This cast carry the film along, the gradual build echoing a similar approach to the final reveal in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Midnight Special is pacy, though the final edit is a bit of a mixed bag. Individual moments of tension see Nichols wrangle tension out of proceedings by extending them by a precious few frames before a sudden cut. Yet, individual precision can’t overcome the fact that some supporting characters and plot details are left wanting. Audiences might be left wanting by the eventual reveal; even coming from the director of Take Shelter and Mud, two films that revelled in their final ambiguities, this one will prove divisive.

It’s tricky to argue that Midnight Special does much new with the Spielberg mythos. There are interesting age-reversals at work in some of the roles (Compare Driver’s fresh-faced authority figure with Shannon’s craggy protagonist), but the basic narrative points are a little too indebted to what came before. Still, there’s a simple unabashed magic at work here, recalling a time when ambition and talent worked over predictability. A familiar taste, perhaps, but it’s made from wholesome ingredients.

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Review: Melancholia (2011)

Director: Lars von Trier

**

The title of Lars von Trier’s latest sensual and sensuous assault refers to the name of a planet which has been hiding behind the sun and is on a possible collision course with Earth (Physics? Bah! Von Trier laughs at your ‘science’!). This potential cataclysm is witnessed from the points of view of two sisters, who are suffering their own doubts and depressions. Wristcutters need not apply. From the title to the characters to the gloom of both interior and exterior sets, Melancholia is bathed in a pervasive sense of deep unending depression. An oppressive tone is one thing, but when that depression borders on (and lapses into) navel-gazing, it feels miserable for misery’s sake. Imagine a film made by a suicidal Luis Buñuel, and you’ll probably come up with Melancholia.

The film is split into two parts, and opens at a lavish wedding reception for Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Mike (Alexander Skarsgård), which is being hosted at the mansion owned by Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). Justine and Mike arrive late as their oversized limo could not negotiate the narrow roads to the mansion for the reception, and here’s where we arrive with Melancholia’s first problem. If the world is on the verge of destruction, surely there are more deserving people to focus on than these bourgeois bores. The reception itself is far from pleasant, as Justine and Claire’s divorced parents (Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt) exchange barbed witticisms and bitterness. Meanwhile, Justine disappears for long stretches of the reception to be alone, to tuck her young nephew into bed or to take a bath whilst still wearing her tiara. It seems like spoiled-brat behaviour, but Dunst thankfully gets into Justine’s troubled psyche right from the get-go with her most accomplished performance yet. Gainsbourg, Sutherland et al do good work also, but Dunst is the beating heart of Melancholia. This would be one reason why the first half of the film is (relatively) more engaging than the second, as the emphasis shifts from Justine to Claire. The second half takes place after the wedding, as Claire takes Justine in whilst she sinks into a deeper depression. Meanwhile, Melancholia is getting closer and closer to Earth, and no-one is sure whether or not they will collide. Frankly, as the tone of the film becomes more and more pessimistic, you’ll wish they do collide so that these bores will be put out of their misery and we can all go home.

Melancholia feels like the most expensive student film ever made. It’s technically impressive (early slo-mo shots of Melancholia’s approach engage the eye beautifully) but emotionally adolescent, as Dunst and co. mope about, philosophizing about their (potentially) impending doom and their purpose in life. Von Trier’s script drops potentially interesting characters (Hurt’s and Skarsgård’s, for example) at the halfway point, whilst the insertion of extracts from Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’ invites unwelcome comparisons to similarly-themed and superior films (2001, etc.). Furthermore, the root of Justine’s depression is never explained concretely. Is it linked to the oncoming planet? Her anxiety over her marriage? Or something else entirely? Von Trier, in a failed attempt at profundity, never reveals the answer. For an visually and intellectually engaging treatise on human existence, see The Tree Of Life. For an emotionally invested and minimal take on Armageddon, see Perfect Sense. Melancholia is just too downbeat and convinced of its own brilliance to fit either bill. Von Trier courts controversy, but this is just too boring to raise any eyebrows.