Midnight Special is a touching and melancholy drama about parenthood, highlighted by the explosive intensity of a chase thriller, and the mesmerizing wonderment of mysterious science fiction.
Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is not like other boys. In fact, he is not like anyone else. His adoptive father (Sam Shepard) is the leader of a religious cult in Texas where he's looked to as a prophet and savior. His real parents were members; Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) left the cult -- or was kicked out -- and Roy (Michael Shannon) both left and was kicked out two years later when he kidnapped Alton and took him on the run. With help from Roy's childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and pursued by the cult and the federal government in a national manhunt (helped by a curious NSA analyst Adam Driver), the family goes on a desperate journey to help Alton discover who or what he is.
|I am completely in love with this photograph.|
This film is very different; the latest effort from Jeff Nichols who is now officially one of my top favorite writer/directors. I've still yet to see his second film Take Shelter (as of writing this), but after seeing Mud, and then Shotgun Stories, I started to understand his directing style -- and with Midnight Special I fell in love with it -- but if I didn't understand and connect with his style, this movie could have gone very differently for me. See, he always excludes exposition from his films, and this one to the highest degree yet. We are told next to nothing; but there is plenty to see and to piece together. There exists backstory and explanations to things in this movie that is never actually explained to the audience. Nichols knows, and his actors know, but we may never know.
It's the sort of thing that might annoy me if it came across as lazy film-making, but since I know that Nichols does know every detail of his story and just chose to omit some of it (because to include it would be to force it in), it works, and actually becomes a significant plus. It has become one of the things that I get to look forward to in his films; being encouraged to make my own discoveries concerning left-out details, and fill in gaps with my own imagination. His movies make me think, but more than that, they make me want to think. They are so interesting that I want to know more, and then they leave more to be discovered in the form of unexplained details and hinted-at depth. I suppose it's not a style that would appeal to everyone, but for me it's a delight.
|As emotionally driven as this film is, there is no skimping on the technical side. This film is tight and precise.|
The film is very dark in tone; dark and melancholy, then serious and intense, and then rich and quietly grand, always with an undercurrent of introverted, tightly wound emotion. It edges on being too dark, and too serious, considering that it starts out that way, instead of taking time to build up to draw the viewer gradually along with it. It may be easy to not get caught up in the flow and the dark depths. Once you are invested though, there's no turning back. I was at several times aware of my heart pounding from the thrill and the mystery, which doesn't happen often, even in more overtly thrilling and mysterious movies. I was completely and hopelessly swept away in it all.
If you want your movie to be constantly swirling in an emotional storm of melancholy, yet still have an intense air of excitement broiling under the surface, you can't do any better than to cast Michael Shannon as your lead. He has been in every one of Nichols' films, but it's clear that he's not just there because he's buddies with the director, but because the roles he plays are meant for him, to utilize his unique attributes and abilities. With the help of an intensely deep face that seems magnetic to darkness, Shannon strikes a fluid balance of imposing, tender, and desperate with Roy. He fits with Nichols' writing incomparably well, and his quiet turns of countenance are a thing to behold.
|When Roy tells Alton "I like worrying about you"... I melted.|
Next best to watch is Adam Driver, who has a disarming charm that makes him easy to trust even though he works for antagonists. His scenes are the closest this film gets to comic relief and a relaxing break from the chaos that threatens other scenes. Jaeden Lieberher comes across as an old soul type (he did in St. Vincent as well) which adds greatly to the other-worldly quality of Alton. Both strange and sweet, he is an endearing center for the film to revolve around. Joel Edgerton didn't get much of the meat of the script, but wound up making a great impression anyway with the thoughtful, loyal, and level-headed helping friend. With Kirsten Dunst, I haven't been converted into a fan yet, but she did exude motherliness with the proper amount of distance and uncertainty.
One of my favorite things about the science fiction genre is how sci-fi elements can be used so magnificently as metaphors for real-life, and to enhance the real-life drama of the story. Nichols uses the opportunity provided by that quality to full potential, and doesn't get swept away by the shiny allure of sci-fi special effects. This film's effects are remarkably realistic, strikingly beautiful, and most importantly, used solely to enhance the story it surrounds. At its core Midnight Special is a family drama, focusing thoughtfully on character and relationships as the family is caught up in an unnaturally amplified struggle against the odds.
|Sci-fi is such complementary genre -- it can enhance every other genre out there.|
Midnight Special is achingly beautiful, and powerfully thrilling; filled with heart, and presented with a Spielbergian-type wonder remade anew. It's plot's ambiguity is purposeful to give way to an emotional story arc, but it creates a side effect; some have and will find it confusing or unfulfilling in the end. (It took me five days to resolve the ending in my mind.) I would like to offer that those people just aren't looking at it in the right light. This film is told so singularly through the eyes of its director that if you can't see it with his very particular vision it may not make an ounce of sense. I'd like to say this strange, moody genre flick is unarguably as I was able to see it, but it's closer to the truth to simply say that this is a personal and very special film that will not appeal to everyone. And that is one of the best things about it.