Midnight Special (2016)

I’m not quite sure the extent to which this film has penetrated mainstream consciousness, but like Jeff Nichols’s last film Mud (2012), everyone in the critical community (and online chatterers such as myself) is talking about Midnight Special. Now, I didn’t like Mud, for the most part due to its reliance on coming-of-age archetypes, though I admired the way it opened its story, and its sense of place. Nichols hasn’t strayed too far away geographically for this latest film (it starts in Texas), and again his storytelling instincts are very strong: there’s a palpable sense of mystery and threat that hovers over much of the film from the outset. This may partially be because I didn’t know anything about the film or its subject matter in advance, but really there’s so much mystery embedded in the film — mystery which is never fully resolved — that it creates a strong desire in the audience to want to know more.

Quite whether you’ll be satisfied with how Nichols’s screenplay answers that desire is going to be a matter of difference (I’m not quite sure I am), but the acting within those key roles is rock solid, particularly from the dependably intense Michael Shannon as Roy, and Joel Edgerton as his childhood friend Lucas. We open on a cultish religious community, from whom has been kidnapped a boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher); the kidnappers are Roy and Lucas, and Alton turns out to be Roy’s son. This is all set out fairly quickly, but there’s clearly a lot more behind this fairly straightforward set-up, something touching on profound mysteries involving the boy, his origins and powers. In a sense, it’s like a science-fiction blockbuster film refashioned as a low-key indie road movie, which gives it a fascinating dynamic that some have linked to cerebral 70s efforts like those of Steven Spielberg, though perhaps his more recent work A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2000) would be more apposite — Lieberher reminds me particularly of that film’s Haley Joel Osment in both looks and the mysterious blankness of his character.

For me it’s a flawed film with a lot of ambition, but it has the filmmaking nous to be able to realise what it sets out to achieve, especially in those opening stretches.

Midnight Special (2016)CREDITS
Director/Writer Jeff Nichols; Cinematographer Adam Stone; Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 11 April 2016.

Mud (2012)

There’s something about all those signifiers of a ‘coming of age’ story that can really raise my hackles when watching a film. The idealistic young kids coming up against the harshness of their parents’ world, the fumbling and humiliation of young love, the wistful voiceover recalling an earlier time of life. Well at least that last isn’t in Mud, and I will concede that the ‘coming of age movie’ clichés don’t totally overpower the story, but the richness and wonder of the opening isn’t really sustained throughout the whole film.

I wanted to get that positive in there early, because it’s not really fair to lead a review with the stuff that bothered me. If Mud can be praised for anything, it’s a really sure sense of place, probably because the director and many of the actors are familiar with this part of the world (the American South of Arkansas, specifically). And there is wonder in those trips up river that the young kids take, a wonder at the spectacular vista of nature in the opening shot that is undimmed in the adults as the film ends. Of course, the river as a metaphor for the onward progress of life with all its twists and tributaries is a very old and powerful one, but the specifics of this location are everything. There is the floating riverside home of the film’s central character Ellis (Tye Sheridan), the island inhabited by Matthew McConaughey’s modern castaway Mud, and the pearl fishing undertaken in a dramatic diving helmet (almost steampunk in its stylised antiquity) by Michael Shannon, playing the uncle of Ellis’ best friend Neckbone.

There’s also nothing shabby about the acting. McConaughey is introduced with cigarette clenched between his teeth, drawling a few enigmatic pseudo-profundities to the kids on the sandy beachfront of the island, but he moves well beyond a one-note caricature of the man with a shadowy past, and over the course of the film has rounded out enough as a character that the violent dénouement (I shall say no more about what happens or the reasons for it, for the usual spoilery reasons) comes as a bit of a surprise, puncturing the atmosphere the film has hitherto created. The young Tye Sheridan, as the actual heart of the film, carries off his role without too much recourse to wistful blankness at what’s happening around him. I liked Jacob Lofley too as Neckbone, in particular his constant compulsive recourse to gauche profanity as if it made him feel more like a knowing grown-up, not to mention his gruff direct questioning of the adults.

Reese Witherspoon too does what she can with Juniper, Mud’s love interest who appears to be waiting for him in a nearby town. The problem is that the female characters are very much at the mercy of the men in the story — certainly not subservient by any means, but, as characters, largely defined by the way the men talk about them. For this, above all else, is a film about (admittedly misguided) patriarchal attitudes as passed down from fathers to sons. All the adult male characters talk about women, share their bad experiences with love, and create an environment wherein Ellis’s central journey (that coming of age story) is to move past these preconceptions with the help of McConaughey’s societal misfit. And if that all seems a little bit too neatly orchestrated, then there’s also the way the script introduces characters (Sam Shepard’s grizzled old veteran Tom, in particular) with skillsets all too convenient for the way the film resolves itself.

Ultimately, the film tries too hard to draw out profundity from the murky depths of these characters and sets itself up for a slightly unsatisfying conclusion. Ellis’s character arc is so predicated on his emotional coming of age that the life-threatening situations he is put in barely seem to register. It’s instead the final shot, refocusing again on the spectacular Arkansas landscape, which provides the key to where the strengths of the film really lie.

Director/Writer Jeff Nichols; Cinematographer Adam Stone; Starring Tye Sheridan, Matthew McConaughey, Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 14 May 2013.

Compliance (2012)

I’ve tagged this as a psychological thriller, but maybe psychological horror would be more apt. It’s certainly a fascinating, if horrifying, story, and from all accounts (as the film is inordinately keen to stress, right up front) it’s based almost entirely on a real case that took place in a McDonald’s restaurant (here rebranded as a chain called ChickWich) in 2004. The story, in short, is that a hoax caller masquerading as a police officer is able to convince the manager of the restaurant to believe that an employee has been caught thieving and then keep her held in the back office until the police arrive on the scene. The detail is in what he asks her captors to subject her to by way of investigating the ‘crime’, which is where things get really nasty.

The nastiness is of course the point of the film, and the unpleasantness induced in the viewer is, one imagines, the point too. It’s the kind of nastiness (of people acting beyond their volition, or in this case, believing that they are) that Michael Haneke was going for in his film Funny Games (1997). That film was particularly concerned with violence, whereas this trades more on sexual exploitation and humiliation and in some ways is even more difficult viewing, though I feel as if a key difference is the way the filmmakers treat the audience. Haneke’s film emphasises audience complicity in acts of on-screen exploitation (in his case, violence); Zobel is not interested in implicating the audience for their voyeurism, but perhaps more in pointing the finger at a culture that allows such compliance, a service culture that discourages questioning of authority, and entrenches class and wealth divisions. I say “perhaps”, for it’s very subtly done, perhaps too much so.

The camerawork constantly shies away from what is happening with discreet pans away behind the shelves, racking of focus, and the intercutting of what for lack of a better term I will call ‘pillow shots’ (those cuts away to still life images of inanimate objects: the paint marking out a car parking space, the food waste encrusting a deep fat frier, that kind of thing). It’s all very artfully done, scored by music that recalls Philip Glass’s work with Errol Morris, effectively creating a mood within which the drama unfolds. I should also single out the acting, especially that of the restaurant manager played by Ann Dowd, which is perfectly fitted to the film’s tone.

As much as I am left wanting to like this film and appreciate its methods, it leaves me feeling somewhat on the side of the exploited. Sure, it does good work in leaving to the viewer big questions about the motivations of its protagonists, and about the power dynamics at work in the society it depicts. But however true the case it depicts may be, such themes can be raised without those particular events. My favourite bits of the film were the opening minutes, setting up the relationships and tensions within the restaurant, between boss and employees, boss and suppliers, employees and customers, front of house and kitchen staff. It was all very deftly done, so my squeamishness comes from the way the ensuing humiliation acts as a rather unpleasant way to force the points already being made. Having said Zobel is not mimicking Haneke’s trick of implicating the audience, yet I am left feeling, having sat through the film, that like the protagonists I have been put in the position of believing I had no other choice than to stay the course. And having done so, I can hardly take the position that the protagonists were foolish to have gone through with their own humiliation, however easy it may in retrospect be to make that judgement. This seems like a morally dubious equivalency to be making, given the evident horrors of the events depicted, but that’s the uneasiness I am left feeling at the end, so perhaps this is the filmmakers’ masterstroke? It is in any case all very complicated: I either despise this film or I love it. For what it’s worth, I didn’t like Haneke’s film either, for exactly the reasons that Haneke had no doubt intended. So maybe in the end, all I’m saying is that I didn’t like myself at the end of this film, and whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing for a film to have achieved, I simply don’t know.

Director/Writer Craig Zobel; Cinematographer Adam Stone; Starring Dreama Walker, Ann Dowd; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 27 March 2013.