Midnight Special



The increasingly impressive Jeff Nichols continues to diversify as a filmmaker, his follow-up to brilliant Southern drama Mud (2012), an evocative indie sci-fi film in which a young boy with a special gift is hunted down by government agencies and a cult looking to exploit him for the purpose of fulfilling a religious prophecy. As Midnight Special (2016) opens, the boy, Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), has been abducted from the cult by his natural father Roy (regular Nichols muse Michael Shannon) and an old friend, renegade state trooper Lucas (Joel Edgerton). Roy’s face is pasted all over the news and around every corner lurks the threat of capture.

Taking to the road, we learn incrementally of important finer details, including a time and place that has special significance. Roy’s sole purpose becomes the necessity to transport Alton to that location, whilst along the way they pick up the boy’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). In alternating scenes we see government science boffin Sevier (Adam Driver) attempting to work the pieces of the puzzle from the ‘official’ perspective, predicting where the boy will be and how his employers can acquire him for their own purposes.

The mystery generated in the early scenes and maintained throughout is a large part of Midnight Special. Nichols poses tantalising questions – the most central of which is what exactly will happen will they reach the appointed place at the appointed time? We get glimpses of Alton’s startling, otherworldly gifts but how he acquired them remains unanswered. Nichols doesn’t over-cram his screenplay with fleshed-out details which may be a major flaw for many looking to plough through the inscrutability but he creates a uneasy tone that intrigues with a hint of danger and supernatural possibility.

Shannon has an intense, glowering presence like few other actors and here he mostly keeps Roy’s emotional extremes to a minimum, internalizing his frustration and pain to the point that he feels like he must inevitably combust. What is conveyed is Roy’s love for his son and his desire to play an important role in transporting his most precious cargo. This in turn will lead to vindication of the boy’s prognostications as he sets about taking any means necessary – including highly unlawful ones – to get Alton to that appointed location.

The mood of the film is distinctly nostalgic. This ponderous but never predictable indie sci-fi road trip comes with a heavy Starman (1984) vibe attached to it. The throwback feel is only enhanced by David Wingo’s mostly synthesised score which features a brilliant, haunting main theme. The awe and wonder evoked by the film’s major set-piece near the end may be just enough of a payoff to justify the director’s generally oblique approach to the material. Midnight Special is flawed, undoubtedly, but for me there’s enough distinctiveness attributable to Nichols’ approach on display to believe that he’s further cemented his growing reputation as one of American independent cinema’s most promising talents.

Black Mass


It’s been a long time since Johnny Depp has contributed much of anything to cinema. From that cartoonish, painfully overdrawn, creative trainwreck of a franchise known as Pirates of the Caribbean to his lifeless, near zombie-esque performances in awful films like The Tourist (2010), Alice in Wonderland (2011), Dark Shadows (2012) and Transcendence (2014), to his utterly embarrassing incognito contribution to Kevin Smith’s ultimately dire Tusk (2014), Depp has been floundering for years, tearing strips off his credibility with every fresh indignity. Only Bruce Robinson’s enjoyable Hunter S. Thompson adaptation The Rum Diary (2011) revealed a glimmer of the actor’s earlier predilection for more interesting, smaller roles.

Something’s different this around though. Depp has finally been paired up with a strong, up and coming director. Scott Cooper coaxed an Oscar-winning turn out of Jeff Bridges for his wonderful debut Crazy Heart (2009) before heading into much darker terrain with his bleak but brilliant, little-seen second feature Out of the Furnace (2013). This exploration of dubious moral boundaries continues with Black Mass (2015), a look at the true crime misadventures of 70’s and 80’s Boston informant James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, played with astonishing veracity by Depp. Bulger was an ugly, venomous creature who used his school chum and senior FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) to wrangle a deal that saw him supposedly drip-feeding the agency with intelligence incriminating the city’s ruling mafia family. Meanwhile he continued to rule the streets as he saw fit, untouched for years by the authorities, as a racketeer, extortionist and vengeful murderer who cleared the path ahead with bullets and brawn.

As with any filmic transcription of real events, some creative departures from the truth are to be expected. And where adherence to logic might be more appreciated and applauded for its novelty factor, the need to charge the narrative with momentum as the years unwind becomes equally important. Bulger’s reign is mostly viewed from internal sources, with the broader focus lacking depth. But this disparity in perspective doesn’t hurt the overall effect too much. Cooper’s direction is polished and combined with the force of Bulger, the film is never less than magnetic. There are partially successful attempts to integrate human dimensions into this portrait of Bulger but even when the mother of his child expresses outrage at the time of the dire diagnosis of their boy’s condition, a fleeting glimpse of Bulger’s softer side is quickly erased by a frightening directive.

Set on drab, grey, ever sunless Boston streets, Black Mass manages to create a genuine pall of unease. The violence is coldly articulated and unsettling, the performances authentically grounded in the believably created milieu of Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk’s screenplay. Depp inhabits Bulger with a fearsome edge. He may be layered beneath impressive make-up effects but the transformation is much more than skin deep. He exudes menace and authority in potent doses; we’re never left in any doubt that Bulger is a man few would dare to cross, even Connolly, whose juggling of his official duties and off-the-record scheming to keep things sweet with his friend produces an uncomfortable degree of sycophantic pandering. Overall, the film enhances Cooper’s growing reputation and is a reminder of the seemingly waning or misplaced transformative abilities of Depp, an actor whose performances of recent times have too often disappeared behind a veil of parody and led, not unjustly, to ridicule.

The Gift


For his directorial debut, actor Joel Edgerton has taken on quite a workload with The Gift (2015). Working from his own screenplay and assuming one of the lead roles, he manages to produce a thriller of rare quality. The opening scenes give the impression of being the set-up for a very conventional stalker drama, one we’ve already seen countless times: a figure from a man’s past turns up out of the blue and methodically inveigles his way into his life. Though Gordo (Edgerton)  initially seems harmless enough – with his regularly timed drop-ins and proffered tokens of appreciation – to Robyn (Rebecca Hall), the wife of successful businessman Simon (Jason Bateman), she’s eventually poisoned by her husband’s assertions that there’s something not quite right with the guy once referred to by his classmates as ‘Weirdo’.

This relatively low-budget film manages to subvert expectations on two significant levels. Firstly there’s the against-type casting of Bateman, best known for his comedic gifts, in the role of the suburban husband under siege from ghosts of the past. The second element of genuine surprise comes in the form of Edgerton’s superb screenplay itself. The deeper we get into this compelling tale, the more its highly original qualities come into focus. Rarely can you speak with a straight face of thrillers possessing substance but Edgerton’s writing manages a ridiculously assured balance of commercial thrills with genuinely surprising developments that add layers to the unfolding battle of wills and shifting battle of power between the trio.

Economically shot in just over three weeks, The Gift is tense and thought-provoking in equal measure. It also boasts three flawless performances, beginning with Edgerton himself; he underplays Gordo’s reactions and complex motivations with great intelligence. Hall’s alluring combination of fragile beauty and steel-edged determination is utilised to great effect by her director, whilst Bateman is thoroughly convincing as a bastard you’d somehow rather give the benefit of doubt to than despise. With a suitably atmospheric but restrained score by the increasingly impressive duo of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, and intriguing ambiguous elements trailing in its wake, The Gift proves to be one of the best films of its types in recent memory.

The Gift opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday, August 27, 2015.