Midnight Special full movie review - A Rewatcheable Thriller that is Fun to Decipher
In order to properly appreciate this movie, I will put my concluding paragraph on top for those who do not wish to read spoilers.
I recommend this film as a smart science fiction thriller in the spirit of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", but try as much as possible to not learn any details of the plot before seeing it. Beware, the rest of this review has many spoilers.
There is a lot going on with the screenplay that makes watching the story details being slowly revealed exciting. A lower budget movie, this movie reminds me of "Sicario", another thriller that wins you over with a plot that keeps revealing deeper details that create terrific momentum. Both movies wisely avoid plot sandtraps that cause the story to fall into cliché or predictability. They also feature top notch acting and sharp editing. I never saw the trailer for this film, but there are moments both in visual and story form that are eye catching and somewhat jaw-dropping. I needed a second viewing, because I didn't pay close enough attention to the dialogue the first time to really catch all the details of the plot. It turns out these details are pretty important, meaning that this film has a very lean script that packs information into every piece of dialogue throughout the picture. It is this breadcrumb style of backstory that keeps you rockin' toward the big third act.
First, much must be commended to the director and the performances from everyone. You will recognise some faces from some big TV series "House of Cards" and "The Night Of". The two male leads create an interesting dynamic. Michael Shannon, a familiar face from "Boardwalk Empire", is the father of a boy with special "X Men" like abilities. Joel Edgerton is for me an unfamiliar face, and the movie does not fully spell out his relationship with the father. We as the audience need to wait until later in the movie to learn about them. Until then, there are some striking scenes in the first act that are shot with a sense of realism that betrays the science fiction element of the film. This also hearkens the fresh approach that Bryan Singer had with "X Men" almost two decades ago.
Other familiar faces are Kirsten Dunst and Adam Driver, both veterans of movies featuring people with super powers. Dunst is the boy's mother. Driver is the slightly unbalanced expert that most resembles Francois Truffaut's character in "Close Encounters".
What is so fun about this movie is putting together the breadcrumbs it first entices you with in the first act. You may deduce the first scene as two men holding a small boy hostage. When the father shows no sign of force when talking to the boy, and with a few subsequent scenes, we conclude that the two men are the protagonists of the movie, and they are actually protecting the boy. From what, we don't know.
Then comes a disturbing scene where FBI agents detain an entire church congregation. Hints of David Koresh, or another type of cult, are interpreted from the details the film gives us. The church scene tosses the audience's interpretation of what is going on into another interesting direction. In the first chase scene, our protagonists flee the authorities. When they are confronted by a State Trooper, Edgerton shoots the trooper twice. I was shocked, these were no longer the good guys. I kind of rejected real sympathy for our heroes after that in the first viewing, because I missed a snippet of dialogue between them mentioning the trooper was wearing a bullet-proof vest. In the second viewing, the dialogue explaining their actions helped, but was not comforting. However, this edgy rift between the two men became another dynamic that factors in later.
When the science fiction elements are introduced, they begin without any buildup or fanfare. The boy's abilities feel like a comic book superhero like Superman. This is another point where the audience is challenged into going into this direction. Here is where I realised that this film is essentially a variation of "Close Encounters", including coordinates that are prevalent in the story that lead to the place of rendezvous with the aliens.
Thankfully, the film does not try to go overboard with the special effects, tossing them in the film more as a teaser to the big third act. Just like "Close Encounters", the entire film builds up to this big rendezvous in the third act. Some film reviews I read had a mixed reaction to the big reveal. I approve of the finale, again not going too extreme with the effects. One problem that Spielberg had at the ending of his film was how to reveal the aliens. He ended up bathing them in light and soft focus, along with no close-ups. In this film, we don't see any signs of life anywhere in the 'sky city'. No UFOs buzzing around, nobody looking from a balcony. No father figure meeting up with the boy. This leaves the impression the large concrete structures we see are no more than gigantic sculptures. Perhaps we are supposed to feel like this is the futuristic city like in "Tomorrowland", or even the floating city in "Star Trek Beyond".
It could be from lack of budget, or the screenwriter's inability to come up with a more satisfying ending. This unfortunately leaves the film's resolution feeling a little incomplete. However, the terrific exciting ride to the finale I found upon second viewing to be well worth it. Also, no sequel bait.
I found this intelligently written, expertly acted, directed, and edited thriller hybrid one of the best hidden treasures of 2016. The lack of big name stars actually helps with the realism, and the low budget also keeps the film grounded. I expect great things in the future from director Jeff Nichols.