Midnight Special engages in mysteries in the dark

Midnight Special does a lot with very little

Most recently I took issue with the beginning of Rogue One, a film which took too long to get going. By the time that it had established its motives and threats the film had already lost me due to throwing out too much mediocre exposition. I had quickly lost faith in the film. I found a nice counterpart to this in Midnight Special, a movie about faith. It takes a long time to start delivering answers but enshrouds itself in an aura of mystery and character drama.  Allowing connections to be made to the characters and questions to be asked as of people’s goals. The point that this drove home to me is that if a film’s beginning isn’t exciting then it must grab its viewers’ attention by being at least intriguing or cryptic. Midnight Special is both from the first scene.

The first scene is an incredibly efficient scene of exposition, using that age-old method of TV news we are introduced to a kidnapped child being held in a motel room by two gun wielding men. Immediately we must question how are we going to side with these men if these are our protagonists. But the gentle concern in the voice of Michael Shannon’s Roy tells us that cares for the boy and the ambiguity of the viewer is immediately established.

Adam Driver’s Paul is the most traditional, accessible character in the film as he is educated of the situation at the same time as the viewers. In a more traditional film he would be the protagonist. However, this is not a film about information, this is a film about faith and relationships, an ethos which is given form by the terrific performance of Michael Shannon as Alton’s father.

Whilst the film is overall a moving and emotive one with a heart of mystery the answers at times do not satisfy. It seems as if Midnight Special was made to not have any solid answers, yet the film gives away half-answers in the form of flowery dialogue, sometimes to a fault.

The purpose of the journey seems to become muddy in the middle, with the main driving factor being Alton’s infrequent episodes and panic attacks. The reasons for which are kept vague for all too long and like the team of runaways the film follows, viewers too are kept in the dark a bit too long. This leads to waning interest when the film should be building up to its conclusion.

The film wears its relatively muted budget beginnings on its sleeves, creating tension out unspectacular set pieces, an example being an extremely dramatic scene late in the film set in a traffic jam and a prolonged sequence involving a road block. Moments which would be 30 seconds long in a typical blockbuster are stretched out for five minute chunks that squeeze every last drop of tension out of the situation.

Midnight Special does a lot with very little. This is to its own credit for the most part but it does mean that there are moments that can lack that penetrative quality. Most notably the flashing eyes of Alton are visited repeatedly but fail to ever look any more than an After Effects overlay. Perhaps it looks so far out of place simply because the film is so gritty and modest in its effects that the eyes stand out like a sore thumb.

Recommendation

It is not Spielberg, Midnight Special is not for everyone, the air of mystery sometimes gives way to the entertainment value and can at times be frustratingly vague

Sci-fi fans will be disappointed by the lack of fantastical elements and thriller fans may be underwhelmed by the few set pieces. The film boasts great acting on all fronts and a nervy contemplative atmosphere that will engage fans of films that do things differently.

Hell or High Water adds grey clouds to the Western landscape

Hell or High Water feels in love with the western and embraces it’s origins

There’s a fine line between action and saturation, and an even finer line between anticipation and boredom, many films have trouble with this balance but not Hell or High Water. The film drops you right into post-recession Texas, hitting you over the head with exposition and one moment later you are in a bank, and the bank is being robbed. There’s humour in the scene and thrills and an immediate Coen brothers air of people being way out of their depth. It pushes you right off into the deep end and once you’ve gotten your breath back it pushes your head back under the water. It does this for almost two hours straight.

Being, in essence, a road movie, the story moves pretty fast, hopping from place to place and never repeating itself. It presents itself as a series of vignettes and character moments, fleshing out its two power couples organically throughout without ever feeling too try hard. One scene near the beginning is all it takes, in which bank robber brothers Toby (Chris Pines) and Tanner (Ben Foster) neatly lay out their motivations. The scene is wonderfully framed outside of a farmhouse, a large steel windpump loudly creaking behind all the talking. Their relationship is unwieldly and bound for danger. Officers Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Parker (Gil Birmingham) motivations are simple, they’re cops, they’re going to hunt robbers.

The film feels in love with the western and embraces its origins, the settings being of small towns filled with local people wearing cowboy hats and moustaches. It wears its influences proudly, the brothers gain their head start due to a technological fault at the bank, allowing them to engage in the freewheeling banditry of the old west. The cop and his native American sidekick must put into place old school police work and rely on testimony rather than CCTV footage. The robberies are a response to a ploy to steal land. The film harks back to the past thematically and literally, through the mouth of Bridges’ soon to be retired cop and through the stoic Native American mouthpiece, Parker, which brings me to my biggest criticism of the film.

Through all the subtle touches and symbolism in the movie, the film draws nice little parallels to class struggles and the American frontier without feeling too forced or preachy, that is until the point where Parker points to a Texas bank and basically says to the audience “here is the message of the film. Banks are bad, okay?” The scene was jarring and way too on the nose for a film so restraint. That being said I can’t be upset about this, the film is smartly written, funny and stunningly beautiful at times. If my biggest complaint about a movie is my only complaint, then it’s done pretty well for itself.

Recommendation

A rare type of film that feels both nostalgic and current, pulled together by good performances and funny interactions. Jeff Bridges provides the comedic glue and Ben Foster brings the sleaze.

Western fans should love it; its desert towns are the perfect setting for the crime. The action is spread out so that when it hits it hits hard. Not a fast paced thriller, although the 100 minutes did fly by.