Midnight Special (2016)


Midnight Special PosterDirector: Jeff Nichols

Release Date: March 18th, 2016 (US); April 8th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Adventure; Drama; Science fiction

Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Kirsten Dunst

The opening shot of Midnight Special shows a motel door peephole. The peephole offers those inside the motel room the ability to spy on any external goings-on, and is in fact the only means to such an end: each of the room’s windows have been dressed in cardboard by occupants wary, perhaps, of the instability of conventional curtains. One of the room’s occupants, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), has even donned enormous orange headphones and a pair of goggles, ears and eyes shielded from something, or maybe someone. It is a brilliant introduction to this patient, mysterious world created by Jeff Nichols, without doubt one of the most exciting up-and-coming filmmakers working today.

A number of forces are after Alton for a number of reasons: the FBI, for fear of his invasive abilities, that the child can undercut complicated governmental systems albeit without malice, and a Texas cult corrupted by the promise of an upcoming day of reckoning. Adam Driver represents the former as Paul Sevier, a compassionate analyst of sorts, and ranch leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) the latter. See, Alton possesses a variety of characteristics not written into the laws of physics. His eyes shoot blinding beams of light and his mind works prophetically, both of which make him valuable. But nobody values him more than his father Roy (Michael Shannon) who, with the assistance of friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), sets out to shield Alton from harm.

Moral complexities are at large early on. Roy and Lucas’ motives aren’t initially clear therefore Shannon and Edgerton must convey a sense of righteousness or otherwise. As they leave their motel room with Alton, we cut to a suspicious receptionist. Shortly thereafter, the pair endure a nasty collision on the road and have a run-in with a state trooper which ends when the latter is shot. It’s not exactly a heroic introduction, but subtle nuances get us onside: Shannon’s paternal vibe towards his son and Alton’s reciprocal nature; Edgerton’s considered demeanour and his character’s need to protect any innocent bystanders (shooting not to kill the trooper, for instance).

The film is also Spielbergian in many ways, from its science fiction touch to how it places youth on a pedestal. You first notice the similarities in a dusk horizon shot, where the various silhouettes of imposing military trucks can be seen advancing along a shadowy road, the background an orange-tinted sky. A general nighttime vibe exists throughout the piece, partially because the screenplay requires it, but also because darkness funds an overarching sense of uncertainty and mystique. Visual flair is mostly restrained, though the film does let loose on two occasions with incredible results — especially incredible given the comparatively meagre $18 million budget.

Its celebration of youthful imagination is another trope from Spielberg’s wheelhouse, enacted generally across the piece but also more intimately when we see Alton reading a Human Torch comic. “Reading’s reading,” Lucas claims, to which Roy glumly replies, “He needs to know what’s real”. Lucas has been won over not just by Alton’s abilities but also his humanness. Roy, while evidently full of love for his son, is more strict when it comes to completing the task; that is, getting Alton to where he needs to be. Perhaps this early in proceedings Roy is unwilling to fully accept the consequences of doing so, which only adds further heft to his journey.

But he does have faith. Religion, the inevitability of one’s beliefs, the cultish haranguing instigated by an isolated community — these are all explored in Midnight Special. Calvin’s ranch carries significant pull, even to those who have left. “Do you miss it?” Roy asks former member Elden (David Jensen), and you can bet he does. We don’t really know anything about those on the ranch, nor those who have escaped, which includes Roy and his wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). Their backstories might have benefited from some filling in, though you have to commend Nichols for his consistency in letting the audience make up their own minds. And there certainly isn’t a total information blackout. Rather, this feels like a well-crafted piece, where each event and scene and conversation carries meaning.

It is always easy to compare a filmmaker’s current work to his/her previous efforts, though such a comparison makes sense here. In many ways, Nichols has taken the most appetising ingredients from both Take Shelter and Mud and moulded them into a sci-fi base: the former’s apocalyptic vision and air of encroaching trouble tags with the latter’s unflashy, youngster-imbued agenda. Alton is the physical manifestation of both elements, a dangerous otherworldly presence to some, yet to others simply a child searching for answers. Television news reels spew out stories on crippling addiction while honchos in suits decry the possibility of nuclear decimation, paranoid and afraid of change even if it is for the better.

Despite being set in contemporary times, the film has an undeniable retro quality similar to that purveyed in Super 8 (though clearly J.J. Abrams’ movie is set in a period that matches its retro-scape). David Wingo’s oscillating, spacey score somewhat soothes our ears as it recalls Alton’s futuristic attributes. It tends to play over scenes involving Alton and never jars, instead shining a positive light on what the boy could represent — that aforementioned change for the better — as well as his family’s motives. At times the music also reminded me of Kristin Øhrn Dyrud’s work in Coherence, a small sci-fi thriller bred from a similar pool of cagey mystery.

For those of you who thought Tomorrowland: A World Beyond lacked concrete storytelling or a consistent strain of intrigue, there’s every chance Midnight Special is film you have been looking for. While Nichols’ outing doesn’t flourish through splendour, it does keep the viewer engrossed for the duration. You have to be; various ideas are floated around — including concepts I haven’t touched upon here, such as undemocratic government surveillance — and it is often up to us to make our own moral judgement. Midnight Special is as much an on-the-road drama as it is any other genre, but it’s also very effective sci-fi. The special stuff, almost.

Midnight Special - Jaeden Lieberher & Michael Shannon

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

August: Osage County (2014)


Director: John Wells

Release Date: January 10th, 2014 (US); January 24th, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Drama

Starring: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts

Family reunions are often tarred with the ‘awkward’ label. And they can be, particularly if the participators share a common animosity. Or at the very least are in any way unfamiliar with each other. Both former and latter are absolutely the case here, only the stench of awkwardness is far from enough. To this family awkwardness encompasses simply the petulant appetiser before an enormous main course; a main course that presents a Sunday roast of hysterics, abrasion and arguments. The Weston family collectively exist in a pit of dysfunction. Sadly though, there’s far too much of it going on. Too much acting, too much shouting, too much loudness. In fact this film is so incredibly over the top it even reduced Sherlock to a blubbering idiot.

Welcome to Osage County. Presumably it’s August.

Upon learning about the apparent suicide of her father, Barbara (Julia Roberts) travels to her parents’ residence for the funeral and accompanying strenuous family congregation. Mother Violet (Meryl Streep) has mouth cancer, an affliction that never halts her ability to rattle out words nor does it subdue the uncontrollable pill-popping antics she vicariously partakes in. As she denounces her Native American maid’s right to refer to her own heritage, it becomes apparent that Violent isn’t a very likeable person. Perhaps she has every right to detest the world given her stricken circumstances, and if so who can hold such insignificant spiting against her? It could even be the drugs taking control and shoving each negative cell in her body to the forefront. But then her sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) doesn’t exactly strike a chord of positivity either, relentlessly berating her own son for flaws overwhelmingly less vindictive than her own. And Violet’s aforementioned daughter Barbara, although at times a great deal more pleasant than mother and aunt, constantly finds herself battling against a future envisioning the same resentful tone as her elders. Only she’s already halfway there.

Therein lies one of two main problems that hampers this drama: it becomes increasingly difficult to pinpoint a character that you can actually relate to, one that you don’t feel guilty empathising with. As the saga plunges deeper and deeper into an abyss of loud shrieks and scalding off-the-cuff remarks, more and more family members are picked off by hate. It’s like a horror film, only instead of a mass-murdering antagonist the villain is a murky cloud of hostility, and instead of people perishing at the swing of a gleaming axe they choke on said whirling cloud and in turn lose any redeemability. Meryl Streep goes all out as the patriarch and is very good at being very bad, but her frenzies cast a shadow over other more genuine lower-key offerings from the likes of Julianne Nicholson and Chris Cooper, as Ivy and Charles respectively (ironically, the only sort of appealing characters on show). Yet even aside from all the noise and palaver, none of the people on screen are extensively interesting. You’d do well to connect with someone who is brash and a tad evil. At best it’s fun for a while, but by the time Streep has smoked her seventh cigarette and Roberts has blown her fourth gasket it all becomes a bit boring.

The screenplay is adapted from Tracy Letts’ critically lauded Pulitzer Prize–winning play of the same name and this provides the nucleus for significant problem number two. Everything feels quite artificial, almost agonisingly forced (tick off the proverbial stage props as you go: dinner table for ultimate congregation scene, porch for nighttime reminiscence scene). Few laughs are on offer, partly because the script can be whimsical but mainly due to the physical nature of delivery required for success. You can clearly see why the hair-raising approach works on stage, where the interaction with audiences who are part of a communally emotive atmosphere surely aids matters too. On screen though the execution is wooden meaning conversational exchanges — of which there are many — wear quickly. Having run out of relevant anecdotes, Streep and co streamline into discussing dying birds and more topics which feebly bear contrived relevance to their situation.

There’s no substance to the dialogue. Petty attempts at stirring the thought-provoking pot (or perhaps cauldron in Violet’s case) backfire as words fall on deaf ears: “Die after me, I don’t care what you do… just survive” might hold some sort of emotional resonance in a John Hughes film, but here it just sounds like terrible advice from a mother to her teenage daughter. Speaking of questionable behaviour, why do some members of the family grasp so tightly to the courtesy of grace at the dinner table, when they’ve just conducted a post-funeral fashion extravaganza? The film often appears to be trying to assure its own direction and often fails. One moment it’s a black comedy, the next a family drama, shortly thereafter a sentimental life-lesson. At one point I was certain the film blaring in view was some sort of Anchorman/Thor hybrid. Turns out Ewan McGregor just has a dodgy accent (“You’re a pain in the ass!”).

It does wave a few white flag-esque redeemable qualities in fairness. A charming soundtrack interweaves amongst the chaos, one which deviates from pleasant to sombre depending on which mode the narrative has shifted to. The extended family dinner is probably the best sequence on display, and is a very good one at that. Only here do each of the characters get to evolve their varying dynamics with other family members. It is the one time where you are absolutely certain proceedings are going to erupt at any given moment, yet the film deviously keeps you guessing and engaged for an extended period of time. The performances on the whole are excellent, if a smidgen awards-gesturing at times. Heck it even conveys the know-how to be funny on the one or two occasions laughs permeate the volatility (reasoning behind Abigail Breslin’s desire to get home is particularly apt).

August: Osage County is just about as messy as the family it thrusts on screen. Half of the characters are undesirable, whilst the other half’s presence merely equates to making up the numbers. There’s a lot of acting going on — bouts of which are very good — but sadly performances aren’t the be all and end all when it comes to engaging an audience.

Tomatoes at the ready.