Movie review: Midnight Special
Jeff Nichols throws Michael Shannon back into the mental wringer as a father trying to save his gifted son from a cult leader, the FBI and comic books
Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Sam Shepard
Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Running time: 111 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
By Katherine Monk
Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary is a gift that Jeff Nichols keeps on giving. Whether it’s the tale of a regular guy obsessively building a bomb shelter or a hillbilly parable that features two boys, a treed motorboat and a criminal romantic on an island, Nichols makes movies that don’t fit tidily into any specific genre.
His intense shooting style — full of close-ups that often refuse a bigger picture and keep us in the dark about context — clearly distinguish him as an auteur. But the subject matter comes close to matinee cheese or conspiracy theory hallucination, which means his penchant for an artsy execution is always tempered by his ability to speak directly to our inner child, hypnotizing us into a willful trance of suspended disbelief.
Midnight Special is probably his most ambitious fusion of these two worlds.
A thriller with science-fiction notes, the movie opens with a shot of Nichols’s preferred leading man, Michael Shannon, holed up in a hotel room. It looks like a scene from William Friedkin’s Bug (in which Shannon and co-star Ashley Judd scratched and picked away at suspected aliens under their skin). The windows are covered in cardboard and even the peephole is taped over.
We see Shannon, then Joel Edgerton, carrying guns and ammo. Then we see the boy (Jaeden Lieberher), sitting under a sheet, wearing blue swim goggles, reading superhero comics.
The general impression is entirely hinky: Two grown men with guns, a little boy reported missing, a hotel room covered in cardboard. But things only get creepier once we hit the ranch, a Texas commune filled with men and women in turn-of-the-last-century fashions. They listen to a sermon from their preacher (Sam Shepard), and it’s not scripture from the Bible. It’s a series of numbers and dates.
With so many intriguing story elements presented in the first ten minutes, the viewer can rest assured the voyage is going to be interesting, and probably unpredictable, but halfway through, you get the feeling this is going to be one of those movies that has no idea how to end.
It’s the problem with working outside the box: You have to create your own form of magical closure that still gives the audience a satisfying end.
Nichols has yet to master the art of the final scene, but as Midnight Special proves several times over, he’s awfully good at spinning a web of intrigue that doesn’t just fire up the creative imagination, it yanks at the spiritual twine of the spheres.
The core dilemma in this film revolves around the mystery of the boy. He seems to have special powers, which is why the cult leader was desperate to get him back. At the same time, the FBI (Adam Driver) is on his trail because the number sequences the kid rattles off with ease just happen to be heavily encrypted, top secret satellite information.
Shannon is the kid’s biological father, and he’s abducted his son to take him to some specific place—at a designated time—but with the cult leaders, the FBI and the state police on their trail, the movie becomes one long chase scene.
Each stop allows a different plot point to be explained, and little by little, we get to solve the mystery alongside the investigators.
Nichols is going for a real world feel: location shoots, drab wardrobes and actors with minimal makeup. He wants us to imagine what it would feel like if we were suddenly in the presence of a being from a different world.
We’d feel terror but also a sense of privilege at bearing witness to something so unique, which is why this film has earned comparisons to E.T. and Starman, but there’s also a bit of Looper in there, as well as early Superman.
It’s insane, really, but because Shannon and Edgerton are so talented, they make us believe in the emotional reality—and turns out, that’s really all you need. The special effects come late, and while they’re great, they actually take away from the magic of the film because it takes away the mystery.
Suddenly, it’s not a story about faith, but a straight up piece of fantasy – which is fine, but leaves you with the suspicion it could have been more.
THE EX-PRESS, March 25, 2016