The new sci-fi drama Midnight Special (***) starts all quiet and creepy. A couple of shady looking guys are travelling incognito with a young boy while motel room televisions are awash with rolling news reports about a kidnapped child and, elsewhere, the leaders of a Southern church talk in guarded tones about how they have to get that same kid back from the man who took him. The kidnapper is Roy (Michael Shannon), and he and his accomplice, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), are taking extreme precautions in their dealings with their young charge (who wears swimming goggles and is prone to hiding under blankets). They black out the windows of their daytime hide-outs, they drive after dark, they use night vision goggles instead of headlights. They also have an easy rapport with the kid (played by Jaeden Lieberher), although the trio’s exact relationships with each other aren’t exactly clear at first. Nor are their connections to the church, which has overtones of Waco, more so when the FBI arrive in the middle of a sermon to quiz the congregation and its leader (Sam Shepard) about both the boy and the church’s stockpile of weapons. What on Earth is going on?
That’s a question Jeff Nichols, the film’s writer and director, has become great at teasing out in films such as Take Shelter and Mud. With Midnight Special, his fourth and most ambitious feature, he once again takes care to ground everything in the here-and-now reality of a human drama complicated by extraordinary events. Alas, it’s precisely these extraordinary events that prove problematic for Nichols this time – making the film’s first half, but almost breaking its second.
Part of the problem is the debt Midnight Special owes to Steven Spielberg’s early work, especially Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET. Nichols isn’t one of those filmmakers who seems content to remix Spielberg’s greatest hits and pass an approximation of his voice off as their own (see JJ Abrams’ Super 8 or M Night Shyamalan’s first few hits). He has his own way of seeing the world that’s much darker and much more fraught with paranoia and genuine peril, things that initially make Midnight Special intriguing in its own right. But while Nichols pays knowing tribute to Close Encounters with some of the details, the sense of wonder that allows you to take the leap with Spielberg into more fantastical territory is kept deliberately at bay here. The tone is earnest but grim-faced and that makes it tough to buy into the latter part of the film as it morphs into the sort of self-serious sci-fi wig-out that wouldn’t be out of place in a rote episode of The X-Files.
Dheepan (****) has had an odd journey to cinemas. Since winning the Palme D’Or at last year’s Cannes film festival – amid boos from attendees and consternation from commentators who’d confidently predicted Carol was a dead cert – the film has practically dropped out of sight, chugging around the festival circuit as if it was damaged goods, when nothing could be further from the truth. Although the film certainly makes a few odd choices, A Prophet writer/director Jacques Audiard’s drama about a trio of Sri Lankan refugees stuck on a French council estate that erupts into violence feels somewhat timely and bold in its willingness to focus on characters whose stories aren’t usually told in big prestigious films of this nature. Faking a family connection to gain asylum, Tamil fighter Dheepan (Antonythesan Jesuthesan), husbandless Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and nine-year-old orphan Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) flee Sri Lanka in the dying days of the civil war and wind up in Paris where their makeshift family unit is alienated in a frightening new urban warzone. Audiard lets much of the dialogue unfurl in Tamil and spends a lot of time giving us an intimate look at his protagonists’ lives, rooting us in their reality so that we’ll go with the emotional flow of the story, particularly as it explodes into a spectacularly violent action film. It’s a virtuoso piece of filmmaking, the seamless switch in styles simultaneously challenging the insular storytelling conventions of both mainstream and arthouse cinema alike.
Couple in a Hole (****) also challenges storytelling conventions, the literalness of its title adding an intriguing air of mystery to Belgian director Tom Geens’ dark drama about a Scottish couple (Kate Dickie and Paul Higgins) living in the wilderness in the French Pyrenees. At first the set-up seems post-apocalyptic in nature, but it soon gives way to something more mundane, yet no less bizarre. Geens does ultimately back himself into a bit of a hole, plot-wise, but his leads’ gutsy physical performances see it through.
There’s literally nothing to recommend in The Huntsman: Winter’s War (*), a spectacularly dull and pointless prequel-cum-sequel to 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman. Original star Kristen Stewart has sensibly ditched this franchise non-starter, but Chris Hemsworth is back as the Huntsman, replete with the risible sub-Braveheart accent he tried out last time. Jessica Chastain, attempting some sort of Irish-y brogue as his one-time betrothed, joins him on a quest to retrieve a magic mirror that’s also being sought by love-hating ice queen Emily Blunt, who seems to have watched Frozen in preparation for the film. The whole gibberish story is tied together by reams of narration from Liam Neeson, whose pronouncement near the film’s conclusion that “some fairytales never truly end” sounds uncannily like a threat.