Midnight Special hit the cinemas on a wave of critical buzz, but I’d have gone just on the strength of Michael Shannon, one of the most reliable lunatics in show business. I’ve missed his last couple of outings, and I was feeling bad about not sending some money his way, even though his characters could be relied on to lose the money and then destroy everything around them in a fit of rage. Shannon does rage like Johnny Depp does whimsy, like it’s an emotional Swiss army hammer which will just turn everything into a nail.
And of course, the choices were stark; it was either watch that, or one of two joyless CGI disasterpieces, and even though I was puzzled to ponder how The Huntsman: Winter’s War could gainfully occupy no fewer than three of the best young actresses working in Hollywood right now, I wasn’t interested enough to want to sit through the damn thing and see them waste their time on it.
Just as well, then, that Midnight Special was about as good as its buzz. It loses its way at the end, as most small indie SF movies do, but up until then it trundles along splendidly. The performances are uniformly excellent, and I never thought I’d say that about anything with Whiny Darth Vader in it; Adam Driver isn’t doing anything especially amazing as an NSA analyst, but he pitches himself perfectly to the movie’s understated realism. Midnight Special is so determinedly unspectacular in its early going, it’s almost a shock that the last few minutes swing to high end CGI like a cross between the end of ET and the whole of Tomorrowland. Sadly, that seems to have eaten all the money they migth otherwise have spent on getting their day-for-night to grate a little less; I could work out pretty much why they had to go day-for-night for one big scene, but in a movie which otherwise used good camera technique unobtrusively, it was jarring enough to take me out of a scene which ought to have been all about the characters.
It’s a smart person’s SF movie; nothing is ever really explained, and the viewer has to work out what’s going on by paying attention. The characters aren’t going to tell you anything about, but their guardedness feels like the natural quietness of ordinary people keeping their emotions tightly wrapped, not the creepy silence of movie constructs keeping quiet just to prevent the big twist from coming out. Shannon is tight wrapper in chief, of course, but he’s aided and abetted by Joel Edgerton, who I’d never heard of and immediately wanted to see more of, and Kirsten Dunst, who for me has never really beaten her debut in Interview with a Vampire but here fits right in with a bunch of people who are showing, not telling.
There’s nothing essential about it; if you go to see it, the odds are that you won’t run into anyone else who has, and it’s not going to change the world in any important way. It doesn’t even have that many new ideas in it; it’s a kid with magical powers running away from the sinister government to get to a magical destination which might just change the world if he gets there. A whole bunch of dumber, spendier movies have been made riffing on those notions. But Midnight Special shows us what all that might be like if it genuinely was ordinary people wrestling with this stuff in the real world; things would go wrong, nothing would make much sense, folks would stumble into the climax, and in the end, all the bad stuff you’d done in the good cause would catch up with you, because the world’s big enough to send in the reserves after the excitement stops. Which is why the movie closes on Michael Shannon’s face, weighing it all up, satisfied that it was worth it all to give his kid a chance. No bad thought to close on.