Release: Friday, March 18, 2016 (limited)
Written by: Jeff Nichols
Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Add Midnight Special to the short but increasingly compelling list of reasons to keep an eye on Jeff Nichols, the director of Mud, an understated drama set on the bayou and one of a select few credited with reinvigorating Matthew McConaughey’s career circa 2013.
Yeah, no big deal. Nichols only ignited a revolution. (Not that the actor hadn’t shown promise before; McConaughey’s dramatic chops in The Lincoln Lawyer and Killer Joe are surely impressive but for the sake of argument let’s just ignore those right now.) It’s been three years since that much-talked about film and the spotlight moves away from the McConaissance and back towards the man in charge: what would he be bringing to the table this year?
Michael Shannon leads the charge in this brilliant genre-defying adventure involving a boy with a special gift that makes him the target of both a government manhunt and a religious cult convinced that the end of days is nigh. Shannon, in a comparably restrained capacity, plays a quietly conflicted man named Roy and is first seen held up in a motel room with his old friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). (I know, that pairing is almost too good to be true . . .)
They have a child with them, by all accounts a normal-looking pre-teen and apparent fan of comics we first meet wearing blue goggles and a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. This is Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher in an incredibly nuanced performance) and we’re not entirely sure whether he’s a victim of a kidnapping. We don’t even know what the men plan to do with him or where (or what) their final destination is.
What we do know is that the boy is precious cargo to both Roy and Lucas, evidenced in how they’re constantly shuffling in and out of the shadows between each location, and that his sudden disappearance from “the farm,” a closed community of religious zealots led by Sam Shepard’s Calvin Meyer and whose female population adheres to a strict dress code (braided hair, long dresses and muted colors), is significant enough to warrant the investigation of Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), a brilliant young NSA investigator working alongside the FBI. In fact the government intervenes during what was presumably going to be another of Meyer’s fire-and-brimstone sermons and begins conducting interviews with many of the members, looking for any leads to the boy’s whereabouts.
Nichols controls the pace of his boldly original screenplay such that we spend much of the earlygoing not even sure where our sympathies ought to lie: the way the government agents threaten the cult with the repercussions of committing high-level treason makes it easier to believe there’s a serious situation unfolding here. (You see, Alton is thought to have prophesied a doomsday event based on a set of numbers, coordinates perhaps, that correspond to the dates and numbers of certain sermons delivered by Father Meyer — numbers he couldn’t possibly know.) On the other hand, Roy and Lucas fail to exhibit any signs of behavior that make us worry for Alton. But just what is their end game? And why can’t Alton be exposed to sunlight?
At its core Midnight Special is a chase movie that pits the trio — soon to be a foursome when Kirsten Dunst’s Sarah, exiled from the farm years ago, enters the picture as a pivotal rest stop for Roy and Lucas late in the story — against a series of strange occurrences that threaten to derail their plans with Alton. There’s more than a whiff of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and his brand of romanticizing the unknown even as Nichols continues to ground the ongoing hostage situation in reality. But science fiction isn’t the only flavor you’ll find in this little cinematic confection.
As Nichols continues peeling back the layers, the thick veil of clandestinity falling aside to expose a vision that threatens to become unwieldy — but that which stays on just the right side of ridiculous — we’re treated to a moving family drama as well as a cliffhanger of a government conspiracy thriller, one that bravely explores the borders of where discovery and science mesh up against religion and faith. In fact Midnight Special has so much going on within its relatively efficient hour-and-fifty-minute runtime the temptation to reveal more nifty details poses a greater challenge than does the task of assigning this thing a genre. So many cool things happen that I want to spoil right now.
But I won’t. I’m not that guy. (Or am I?) No, I’m not. But I really, really, really, really want to. Suffice it to say that Nichols’ latest is just one of those rarities that get you excited to tell everyone, including the person you’re sitting next to at the dentist’s office about. It’s an experience I’ve been longing to have for some time. I love Midnight Special, for everything it is and everything it is not. For all of the success it finds in challenging the brain while appealing strongly to the heart. I cannot wait to see what the guy does next.
Recommendation: Midnight Special marks the fourth film Jeff Nichols has directed (and written, to boot). He’s a promising young talent that likes dealing in real, flesh-and-blood characters and intriguing premises that keep viewers involved from start to finish. It’s also a movie that offers terrific performances, the most pleasantly surprising coming from the increasingly hard to find Kirsten Dunst. If any of that appeals, you need to check this one out. Pronto, Tonto.
Running Time: 112 mins.
Quoted: “I’m always going to worry about you Alton. That’s the deal.”
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