Thursday, April 7, 2016

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is a Riveting Sci-Fi Father/Son Story


- Writer/director Jeff Nichols has quickly become one of *the* guys to watch in cinema. His films - though to date, they've been lower budget - overflow with narrative ambition. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is perhaps his most ambitious movie yet. It mixes the heightened, slightly-surreal drama of his previous films with a throwback, Spielberg-esque vibe - calling to mind the Amblin movies of the 80's that so often featured a kid or kids on the run from evil forces. But where the Nichols of it all comes into play is that MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is also an ultra-intense, spiritually-rich meditation on fathers and sons, destiny and fate. Like some of Nichols' other films, there are parts of the movie that work better than others. But mostly, this is a cinematic journey well worth taking - a film that feels both personal and epic, a sci-fi adventure that you won't soon forget.

The movie centers around a young boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) - who was born with super-human powers. He seems attuned to all kinds of invisible frequencies, and has psychic powers that make him nearly omniscient. The film throws us right into the middle of a crucial turning point in young Alton's life. He is on the run. His father, Roy (the great Michael Shannon), and his father's childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are driving him away from multiple pursuers. Their destination is foggy - they are simply going where Alton tells them they need to go, to fulfill some as-yet-to-be-revealed higher calling. But there are many who want to find Alton and take him away from his protective father. For a time, Alton was raised by a cult in his Texas hometown - led by a charismatic leader (Sam Shepard), who now wants to reclaim his messianic figure by any means necessary. In parallel, the government is aware of Alton and wants to bring him in for tests. A government scientist (Adam Driver) leads the hunt.

Once again, Michael Shannon's intensity is a great match for Nichols'. Shannon anchors the film with a searing performance - playing a father utterly dedicated to protecting his son. But that drive to keep Alton safe comes into direct conflict with the rapidly-materializing reality that the boy is meant for some higher purpose - a purpose that will likely separate father from son. And so, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL becomes a somewhat haunting meditation on fatherhood - on the idea of bringing someone into this world that you must eventually part with. Shannon is fantastic here. He often plays larger-than-life, but he also acquits himself well to everyman.

The rest of the cast is also excellent. Lieberher does a great job as Alton - he fluctuates between seeming like a regular kid and having a tangible otherworldly quality about him. Edgerton is also really good as Shannon's erstwhile companion. He seems so natural as a down-home Texan that it's hard to believe he actually isn't one. Suffice it to say, his performance made me picture him as a perfect Stu Redman in an adaptation of The Stand. Kirsten Dunst is another huge standout. She comes into the picture later in the film - playing Alton's estranged mom - but she makes a huge impact and is at the center of some of the movie's most memorable scenes. Coming off of her phenomenal work in Fargo Season 2, Dunst continues her hot streak with another great performance. Adam Driver is doing something much different here than we've previously seen from him. Unlike his twitchy performance on Girls or his angry/emo portrayal of Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens, here he plays a subdued, inquisitive scientist - a guy who goes against the grain of his employer's aggressive, often ruthless modus operandi. And Sam Shepard is a lot of fun - pretty much the best there is at playing a Southern-fried badass.

But ultimately, this is Nichols' film. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL absolutely drips with atmosphere and pounding intensity. It feels like Nichols is doing a sort of Marvels-like take on the superhero genre, filling his cinematic canvas with street-level views of the fantastic - giving us imagery designed to elicit maximum awe and wonder. In an age where CGI-porn action movies often take their own wizardry for granted, Nichols seems to be deliberately trying to channel that old-school, Spielberg sense of grandiosity. And he succeeds pretty spectacularly. The filmmaking in this movie is like a live-action version of something Alex Ross might paint - an apocalyptic vision of one family's fight against rapidly-encroaching doom. Meanwhile, the movie's brimming intensity is only accentuated by its thunderous score.

Where MIDNIGHT SPECIAL perhaps falters a bit is in its endgame. In similar fashion to the recent 10 Cloverfield Lane, the movie almost goes too big with its grand finale, giving us too much when all we needed was a quick hint of the bigger picture. This movie - like 10 Cloverfield - keeps its secrets relatively close to the vest throughout its running time. The exact nature of Alton's powers and origins is kept vague - and really, it's mostly beside the point. So the big finale feels a little out of place given what most of the movie has been to that point. And whereas the mystery around Alton adds to the tension of most of the film, the finale makes us ask various plot-related questions that threaten to overshadow some of the film's deeper themes.

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL works best when thought of as a father-son movie that also happens to channel the vibe of 80's Spielberg sci-fi. If you think too hard about the details of the plot, the movie definitely reveals itself to be a bit thin. But as a quasi-metaphorical, quasi-spiritual journey - it soars. Nichols is one of those filmmakers who, quite simply, knows how to hold an audience in the palm of his hand. He makes even the movie's more slow-burn sections feel positively riveting. I can't wait to see what he does next.

My Grade: A-

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