Sunday, April 24, 2016

'Midnight Special' review

Going into Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols' enigmatic and mysterious sci-fi thriller, there's a good chance that you'll be wondering about the meaning behind the title. Is there some kind of significance to the phrase? Does it hint at a reveal in the movie? Is there a big plot twist? The answer is- none of the above. In the context of the movie, "Midnight Special" means absolutely nothing. But that doesn't mean that it's a meaningless title. Instead, it hints at the experience of the film. Midnight Special plays like a vision, a hallucination, a fantasy. It's the stuff of astounding science fiction stories- no true explanation is ever given for the events of the film. It thrusts you into the middle of the action with very little context only to leave you with an ending that will give you very little closure. It feels like a thought that pops into your head at night, one of those weird, wild concoctions that can only happen when the rest of the world is asleep. Like one of those dreams where you wake up suddenly, wondering what the hell happened. Midnight Special is the equivalent of watching one of those dreams come to life on the big screen for two hours.

In terms of the experience of the film, I think that the less you know, the better. So I'll give you this brief, Hemingway-style summary. Roy (Michael Shannon) is on the run with a boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). Lucas (Joel Edgerton), his friend, is helping him. Alton happens to be Roy's son. Alton has special powers. Those special powers are compelling to both the U.S. government, and a religious group known as The Ranch. The government believes that Alton is a weapon, while The Ranch believes that he's the savior of all mankind. Under the pursuit of Ranch leader Calvin (Sam Shepard), and U.S. agent Sevier (Adam Driver), Roy and Alton will have to find their way to his destiny.

This is all that you need to know about this movie, and going in, it's all that you should know. Nichols' film thrives on intrigue and mystery, not complicated plot mechanics. While it works as a high-concept sci-fi film, it feels so bare-bones and white-knuckle. The special effects are used sparingly, and in general, the color palette and style of the film is incredibly clean and minimalist. Sets are simple and plain, the chases and setpieces are incredibly basic, and the big surprises and reveals are never convoluted or mind-boggling. And in terms of tone, as many have noted, the influence of John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg bleeds through every frame.

But despite those grandiose ambitions and inspirations, Midnight Special feels like its own unique thing. It almost works as a rebuttal to Close Encounters of the Third Kind in a certain way- it takes the decisions of that film, the regrets that Spielberg still holds in regards to character choices, and completely flips it. Nichols wrote the film in response to his new life as a father, which is the polar opposite of Spielberg's state of mind when he wrote Close Encounters. And in their respective films, it shows. Instead of making a movie about one man consumed by a fate that alienates him, Nichols has taken the tonal inspiration and created a film where a man is consumed by love for his child. Love, and the knowledge that maybe his child holds a greater destiny. Roy Neary walks away from his children at the end of Close Encounters. In Midnight Special, Roy Tomlin will do anything to ensure that his child reaches his potential.

The success of the movie hinges on this relationship working, and thankfully, Nichols has Michael Shannon to back him up. The ever-terrific Man of Steel star plays Roy as the emotional core of the movie, and even during the film's numerous slower moments, Shannon's determination and melancholy power shine through. It's a bittersweet performance in a bittersweet film. Shannon is complemented well by Kirsten Dunst's performance as Sarah, Alton's estranged mother. Dunst is equally subdued and calm, but she commands your attention in an interesting way. There's a clear history between Roy and Sarah that we've missed out on, which makes their scenes all the more compelling. Of course, the center of this is Alton, played with a noble steeliness by young actor Jaeden Lieberher. He does a lot with a tricky role, creating a character that works as the heart of the film.

Midnight Special also has a terrific supporting cast, highlighted by Joel Edgerton's quiet and pensive turn as Lucas, the complexity of Adam Driver's performance as Sevier, and the ominous presence of Sam Shepard's Calvin and the other members of the Ranch. However, there's no doubt that Jeff Nichols is the movie's superstar. The Arkansas-born director broke onto the scene with Take Shelter and Mud, but Midnight Special shows that he's a filmmaker with a diverse range of stories to tell. If Mud was his attempt at a modern Huck Finn, Midnight Special is his stab at the modern mythology of science fiction, with a story that feels ethereal and other-worldly in a strange, fascinating way.

Nichols injects that exquisite clarity into every scene of the film. Although he is also credited with writing the screenplay, I can't imagine there was much of one. In Midnight Special, the characters don't communicate by spelling everything out for each other. This is a movie that has virtually no exposition. And yet, there's never a moment where the audience is unaware of what is happening. There's no need to go too deep into the backstory of Roy and Alton, because just through a few quick phrases and glances, we have a complex understanding of their relationship. This is the magic of Nichols' storytelling. He eschews something complex in favor of celestial spirituality and basic narrative momentum, both of which carry the movie to the finish line.

That's not to say that Nichols' style doesn't have its failings. There's a reason why Warner Bros. didn't give this film a wide release- it certainly won't play to everyone's taste. The lack of introduction will likely be jarring for many audiences, and I even found myself bored at times during the middle section of the movie. Nichols' film always has momentum, but there are some moments where it lacks vigor and energy. Things slow down quite frequently, with certain scenes feeling out of place. Thankfully, Nichols is able to alleviate this by keeping the atmosphere steady. From the terrific cinematography by Adam Stone to David Wingo's eerie score, Midnight Special is always consistently phantasmal and dreamlike in its own way.

It ends quickly, and you'll probably be thrown back a little bit. You'll stumble out of the theater, maybe talking about some of the great elements that the movie has to offer. You'll wake up from the dream. And the dream might float away from your mind for a few days. But don't worry, it'll find its way back in. Like an illusive, hallucinatory experience that you just can't shake, Midnight Special will come back and stay in your head for a while. And this time, it'll stick. With a stunning eye for genre details, phenomenal performances, and a unique mood unmatched in most modern sci-fi films, Midnight Special becomes a memorable, haunting creation. You might not understand what you've seen, but you'll know that you saw something.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                               (8/10)

Image Credits: Telegraph, Variety, Guardian, THR, Joblo

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