Monday, April 11, 2016

[Review] Midnight Special

After delivering a trio of excellent Southern Gothic tales--Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud, along with a whole lotta Michael Shannon, writer-director Jeff Nichols makes a genre leap to sci-fi with Midnight Special. No, he hasn't gone full Jurassic World or The Force Awakens (even though Adam Driver aka Kylo Ren plays a pivotal role here). In fact, Midnight Special is still a relatively small and subtle film, very much rooted in Nichols' usual themes of parenthood and deep south settings (Guns, Terrain & Automobiles), but this time there's a surreal and supernatural pull to it.

The story opens amidst an Amber Alert. Watching that report on TV from a grungy motel room are the subjects in question: Roy (Michael Shannon), Lucas (Joel Edgerton, The Gift), and an 8-year-old boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). But this is a different kind of abduction. Much different. Even though the two men are strapped with rifles and bulletproof vests, we get the impression that their intentions for Alton are more heroic than criminal. We also learn that Alton possesses a special ability, as well as telekinetic-like powers. Depending on whom you ask, the boy can transmit information from either the Lord or the government. Roy and Lucas plan to deliver Alton to a specific location, where a celestial event is due to occur. But it isn't a smooth journey, especially with Alton's health deteriorating, and not to mention, all the authorities on their trail.

Midnight Special works well as an on-the-run, chase & hide flick, as well as a paranormal mystery. The film never gives too much away. In fact, it hardly gives anything away at all. This keeps the intrigue high, always making you wonder what exactly is up with Alton, how it will all turn out, and what the film itself is conveying. Is it a religious parable? An extraterrestrial spinner? A plight against NSA conspiracies? And the thing is, Nichols goes out of his way to make sure that it doesn't fit into any of those boxes, and that seems to be the major aim. It's a strangeness with elusive meaning--not entirely intended to be figured out our categorized.

2013's Mud (one of the best films of this decade) dwelled in winding creeks, crooked tree branches, and murky river bottoms, and ironically it was infinitely more clear and straightforward with its coming-of-age ambitions and neatly bittersweet ending. Midnight Special on the other hand, looks toward wide open highways, vast fields, and views of the endless sky--literally leaving everything up in the air. Despite the vague and confounding narrative, Nichols manages to coax greatly convincing performances from the cast. Is it even a Jeff Nichols film without Michael Shannon? (He's already slated for Nichols' next film, Loving.)

The ambiguity, unanswered questions, and lack of a fully resonant payoff might frustrate some. Still, I'd say Jeff Nichols is 4/4, creating something here that is both grounded and mystifying. Midnight Special is a difficult one to pin down, but that's also what makes it fascinating. And that might be the film's most lucid point--there are just some things that we don't understand.


1 comment:

  1. After reading strong reviews for this film, I came in with high expectations (probably too high). I liked Nichols previous work, yet this one left me cold for reasons you pointed out, all the unanswered questions. Everyone points to the Spielberg influence, but it felt more like an M. Night Shyamalan movie - thinking Signs.