Midnight Special

MidnightSpecialPosterWith “Midnight Special,” Jeff Nichols’s fourth film (“Mud, “Take Shelter”), Nichols remains the best emerging American director today, capable of infusing any genre with earthy, Americana trappings and unpacking the intimate character drama within. “Midnight Special” channels sci-fi, noir and family melodrama in unpredictable, startling ways and resembles a modern day stab at the personal conflict of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or the spirituality of “Contact.”

Except the story of “Midnight Special” defies easy classification and blends genres with thrilling results. At its very core a chase film, “Midnight Special” begins with Roy (Michael Shannon) on the run for having abducted a young boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher). He and a former cop named Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are trying to get Alton to an undisclosed location while evading a religious cult who sees Alton as their savior and the FBI who believes Alton knows confidential government information. Roy however is really Alton’s birth father, separated from him by the cult leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard).

Above the sci-fi tension and conspiracy theories, the father-son dynamic between Alton and Roy truly drives “Midnight Special.” Alton possesses untold powers that change and grow more intense and severe the more they remain unchecked, from being able to unconsciously tap into radio frequencies to locking eyes with powerful blue tractor beams of light. Roy can’t fully comprehend all that’s happening to Alton, covering his eyes with blue swim goggles and transporting him only at night, but he displays a need to protect him above any greater cause the boy might represent to the cult or to the government.

As a result, Shannon proves a touching father figure. His eyes and body language are more muted and less intense than in many of his other fiery roles, but he’s gruff and a man of few words in a way that will be familiar to many fathers and sons. “I like worrying about you. I’ll always worry about you Alton. That’s the deal,” he says. All this family drama weaves wonderfully within “Midnight Special’s” denser scientific jargon and spiritual underpinnings. The ambiguous nature of Alton’s abilities and ties to another world all serve the film’s mystery and suspense.

And “Midnight Special” is highly entertaining and beguiling. Nichols seeps the film in darkness and other-worldly lens flares. The quiet, procedural and noir-like filmmaking make Alton’s skills all the more startling when the fireworks begin. “Midnight Special” even has a sense of humor. Adam Driver (“Girls,” “The Force Awakens”) as the NSA analyst tracking Alton is out of place in the best way possible. He has an awkward, nerdy charm that’s practically foreign to the more rural sensibilities of the rest of the cast.

With “Midnight Special” Nichols has proven that he can take a larger budget and still deliver the intimate character drama of an indie. As a director and screenwriter, Nichols has as much untapped potential as Alton.

4 stars

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2 Comments

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  1. Sounds very intriguing, I will definitely try to see it!

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  2. nice appreciation of nichols, brian–the movie too, for that matter–though let’s hope he doesn’t turn out to be the next brad bird or david gordon green, both of whose work took a “creative” nosedive when they started getting those big production bucks * (actually bird’s the more immediate cross-reference, his TOMORROWLAND an example of the bloat and overscaling that the somewhat analogous MIDNIGHT SPECIAL seems largely free of; to belabor the point just a bit: bird’s future metropolis is everything you’d expect–sleek, metallic, like zaha hadid (may she rest in peace) on steroids, whereas SPECIAL gives you what’s almost a tadao ando sensibility: look at the concrete! look at the infrastructure! points of architectural detail we’re not usually invited (in SF movies anyway) to pay attention to * it’s this kind of nonformulaic approach to formulaic themes and motifs that distinguishes nichols right now–pretty small stuff, really, but it’s the accumulation of mostly humble departures from the commercial norm that makes his “genre” work (should we even call it that?) so interesting–if not often surprising! * and in joel edgerton he’s got an actor who feeds on this sensibility: watch the little gestures he brings, the turn of a hand, his investment in yeomanlike activity (he really seems to groove on those car repairs!), his utter lack of self-consciousness under the camera’s gaze–one of the great underappreciated film presences we have right now, both as a performer and as a filmmaker in his own right …

    favorite shot in the movie: traveling down a florida highway, camera focused on the road’s yellow stripe, seemingly from inside a moving vehicle … except as the shot rises up we realize–quite suddenly–we’re not inside a car at all, that instead it’s a shot from the air, with swarming black helicopters above that the camera ultimately joins as the yellow stripe veers gracefully off and now we have only the forest tops, a level, almost unbroken horizon of trees * later on this evolving horizontality will be echoed in the everglades grasses, where the swamp surrounding the young hero seems to stretch forever on and on … to infinity, or at least the alien “other world” that’s all of a sudden making its presence felt * the movie seems full of this kind of topographical counterpoint–which is something nichols will obviously have had to plan out: it’s not anything you can achieve by accident * it’s also a measure of his “creative” jones, such as it is: “truth” in the nuances, in the god of small things–not a lot of “big time” hollywood in any of this * or at least not yet … fingers crossed, ok?

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