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Midnight Special, the new neo-noir/sci-fi film, opens at night with a throbbing music score backed by hypnotic drums. It grabs you by your neck and just won’t let go for the next ninety minutes. At first, the story seems to be about the abduction of a little boy, but it soon becomes clear that it’s much more complicated than that. The boy was adopted by the leader of a religious cult that makes its base in a private compound in Texas and the ones who have taken the boy from them is the boy’s biological father and the father’s closest friend.
So what is really going on and why do so many people treat this child as if the future of the human race depended on him? And why are the FBI after him as well?
Midnight Special is the sort of film every aspiring screenwriter, director and producer should be seeing, but I often suspect aren’t. It should be studied and emulated. That is, if you really want a future in the industry, whether your goal is the tent pole films of a major studio, or the more personal films that one sees on the independent circuit.
It’s not the big, expensive blockbuster movies that new filmmakers should be looking at now, not if you’re still at the starting gate. Almost no one starts out at the top. Almost everyone has to begin at the bottom. And the modern day equivalent of the studio mailroom are the lower to micro budgeted and more contained, less flashy cinema that is rising out of the contemporary indie film movement.
Though I’m not sure if “movement” is quite the right term. For some time, I’ve been waiting for the next American new wave, a collective view of how to make films and what kind of films to make, usually in rebellion against the status quo, to appear. It’s been seen recently in Romania and South Korea (the two countries making the most interesting films these days), as well as such countries as the old tried and true France and Italy, which is again seeing new life (France is on its third new wave).
But the studios have so overshadowed the indie film movement in the U.S. of late, I wasn’t sure we would ever see the likes again of the same sort of movement last seen at the beginning of the 1990’s, with the movies being made by Quentin Tarantino, The Coen Brothers, Kevin Smith and Steven Soderbergh, to name just a few.
And I’m not sure we’ve having one now. The only real movement of recent U.S. cinema of any note is mumblecore, in which uninteresting characters did uninteresting things in movies with miniscule budgets. I’m probably not being totally fair here. Mumblecore did give us such artists as Lena Dunham, the Duplass Brothers, Greta Gerwig and Adam Driver, but for the most part, the movies were more often than not, a drudge to get through.
But I do think something is changing as we’re finally seeing a group of filmmakers make their way to the front. What may be different here, in comparison to earlier new wave moments, is that this may not be based on an artistic rebellion, but arises out of a practical situation, based more on a Darwinian survival of the fittest. The filmmakers moving to the front are those who have the skills to keep on making the kinds of films they want to make. To be the last man standing. Movies driven by the “what is so great today is that anyone can make a movie, and what is so awful today is that anyone can make a movie” philosophy.
And for some, these sorts of films will ultimately be a fulfillment of their visions. For others, they will be a stepping stone to Fox or Warners or Universal.
So the kind of movie new filmmakers should be studying now are films like Upstream Color, Monsters, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Tangerine, Dope, Dear White People, It Follows, movies that are lower budgeted and are the result of an artists’ vision.
I’m not asking a filmmaker to like all of them. I don’t like all of them. But like it or not, tent pole films, though still often highly successful, are the past, while these films and filmmakers ae the future.
Midnight Special is the fourth feature film of writer/director Jeff Nichols. He began with the film Shotgun Stories and has gradually created an impressive oeuvre with Take Shelter and Mud (all with his greatest contribution to modern cinema, the discovery of Michael Shannon).
In his latest film, Jeff Nichols has created an exciting mystery that slowly reveals itself, a slow burn of a story in some ways, but with edge of the seat tension. It’s a riveting road movie that handles its various genres more expertly than most. And the plotting is clever and well thought out and there are some astounding scenes, like one creepy one at a gas station that is hit by something from space.
I’m not sure that the resolution to the film works as well as I would have liked. The cult, that was so important at the first of the movie, is just dropped as if it were never there. And though the CGI at the climax are beautiful, I think it also resulted in a film that is a bit more confusing that satisfying. Of course, it’s almost impossible to have a satisfactory ending in a story like this; it’s a plot that paints itself into a corner (Nichols earlier film Take Shelter had the same problem). The movie might have worked better the less it showed. But there is also something stunning about it and any other ending might have come across as anti-climactic.
Midnight Special is impressively cast. Shannon is back again as the boy’s biological father and his intense presence and laser like eyes command the screen as usual. Joel Edgerton plays his best friend and matches him in intensity. Adam Driver is the semi-nurdy tech geek who is assigned by the FBI to figure out just what the hell is going on; he’s very effective (Driver is an actor that you always think can’t be effective, but usually surprises you by being the best thing in a movie). Kristen Dunst is the boy’s biological mother. And Sam Shepard is the head of the cult (I’m not sure I can think of anyone better to head a cult than Shepard).
The boy is played by Jaeden Lieberher, who has been collecting a nice series of movies for his resume, including St. Vincent and The Confirmation.