Sunday, March 20, 2016

Review: Midnight Special

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Jeff Nichols' films often flirt with genre but are - at heart - tales of people from Middle America who are living on the fringe of society. His brilliant "Take Shelter" was an unsettling story about a man living in an Ohio community suffering amid the economic downturn who receives eerie portents that something awful is coming and that he must build a shelter.

His previous feature, "Mud," was both a crime drama and a coming of age tale set in the South. And his latest, "Midnight Special," is undoubtedly a science fiction thriller, but also a story about criminals on the lam as well as a family drama. While it borrows elements from Steven Spielberg (most notably, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind") and John Carpenter ("Starman," but also the film's electronic score and certain shots that might have felt at home in the cult director's early 1980s output), "Midnight" is also very much Nichols' own, both in terms of story and style.

As the film opens, two men - Roy (Michael Shannon, looking haunted as ever) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a state trooper - have nabbed a young boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher in a great child performance) who appears to have some sort of special powers. His eyes emit intense rays of light that can stop satellites in the sky and his sense of hearing is highly evolved - during one scene, he speaks aloud words being said on a radio station that Roy and Lucas haven't even yet tuned into.

Alton had been staying with a man Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), a creepy cult-like leader whose followers live on a property known as The Ranch, where the young boy had been treated as some type of savior. Although the film only slowly divulges information, we learn that Roy and Lucas intend to reunite Alton with his mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), and then take him to a specific spot in the United States on a particular date where - well, something - is set to happen. Could it be the end of days as Meyer and his followers believe?

Meanwhile, a sympathetic NSA agent named Sevier (Adam Driver) is among the many officials seeking the boy and his father, whose faces are plastered all over the news. And Meyer has sent two of his own men - both of whom are ruthless in their pursuit of Alton - to reclaim the child for the cult.

Although the film deals with close encounters that are indeed of the third kind, "Midnight Special" is a modestly scaled, intimate and moody low budget thriller. A majority of the picture takes place at night, which not only allows Roy, Lucas and Alton to stealthily drive with their lights off on highway roads, but is also required due to the boy's condition. In other words, he can't face direct sunlight.

When the special effects finally arrive during two scenes - one particularly intense one at a gas station and another at the film's climax - they are impressive, but without overshadowing the story and offsetting its melancholy mood.

Nichols is among the most exciting filmmakers to have emerged during the past few years. Although "Take Shelter" was only his second feature, it was directed with the hand of a master and with "Mud" and "Midnight Special," he has carved out his niche as a filmmaker, both in terms of content (Southern and Midwestern dramas that blend genres) and tone (subtle and moody).

For a genre film, especially a sci-fi movie, "Midnight Special" is a pleasant surprise. Its story is a familiar one, but its strong filmmaking, great cast and soulful tone make it stand out among your average example of its genre. The summer blockbuster onslaught begins in a little over a month, but I doubt any of this summer's big tent-pole genre movies will display the filmmaking chops that are so obvious in a film such as this one.

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