Midnight Special (2016)

I think Jeff Nichols is a writer-director that probably most people are not familiar with, but he happens to be one of my favorites currently making movies.  Two of his previous films, Take Shelter and Mud (the best movie in the McConaissance) were both in my Top 10 for 2011 and 2013, respectively.  To date, his film are generally small in scope, and they tend to focus on family dynamics.  They’re also set in the South or the Midwest, with Nichols himself being from Arkansas.  Midnight Special is his fourth film, and it is a little larger in scope, but no less intimate in its storytelling, focusing on a splintered family with a young child at the center of it with special powers.

The boy with special abilities at the center of it all is Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), for whom we find out in the opening moments that an Amber Alert has been issued.  He has been taken by his father, Roy (Michael Shannon), and his friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), from a religious compound known simply as The Ranch.  The Ranch is soon descended upon by government agents who are curious how the cult’s leader, Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), has been reading classified government information to his followers.  The information was obtained by Alton, who spoke it to them spontaneously.  This is one of several curious abilities that Alton has displayed and why he has become a person of great interest not just to The Ranch, but the government as well, led by curious NSA agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver).  All of these forces are soon on the trail of Roy, Lucas, Alton, and eventually Alton’s mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), as they attempt to get Alton to a specific location by a certain day and time where they believe something is going to happen.

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I’m a huge fan of science fiction movies, and I like all varieties of them.  More than any, though, I like the ones that are based largely in reality with elements of sci-fi layered into it; films like Nichols’ Take Shelter, Looper, or this year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane.  I really enjoy the sci-fi films that focus as much or more on how the events or circumstances impact the characters than the events and circumstances themselves.  This puts Midnight Special right in my wheelhouse.  This is not a big budget Hollywood blockbuster (it was made for $18 million) that has a big sweeping scope and is full of spectacle.  This is a small film that feels big and has moments of visual beauty and spectacle that are as impressive as anything you would see in any big tent pole movie.

Alton is a young, 8 year-old boy who is not a normal child.  Despite his preternatural composure, he doesn’t know what is going on with him or how and why he is able to do the things he does.  Some of his abilities are being able to hear radio frequencies and satellite communications.  It also includes beams of light emanating from Alton’s eyes that when people gaze into it they see unexplainable things, particularly during the daytime, which has forced him to sleep during the day and stay up at nights, as his powers are nearly uncontrollable in the daylight.  As a safety precaution, he goes around with protective goggles over his eyes, like swimming goggles, and wears headphones when he sleeps to block out the outside world and let him sleep.

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The film sets a great mood and tone.  Alton’s abilities are glimpsed but never fully explained.  People at The Ranch who are interviewed about him have a difficult time explaining what he does.  For the majority of the film, what is going on with Alton is only mostly hinted at, and even when things are explained, they are explained in the most basic ways, still leaving much open to question, interpretation, and (most importantly) imagination.  Some people may not buy into the ending of the film, as it actually reveals what it has only hinted at to that point, but hopefully people invest in the characters and not whether the end lives up to the rest of the film.  Also, given the presence of the religious cult in all of this, it’s impossible to not see Alton as a Jesus figure, though not in a messiah way that The Ranch views him in how they read what he says like scripture.

The cast is great top to bottom.  Michael Shannon is frequent collaborator with Jeff Nichols, having appeared in all three of his previous films and he is as good here as I’ve seen him.  Roy is a richly layered character, embodying years of living on a religious extremist compound until recently and throwing that off in the interest of his son.  It’s never directly addressed, but there is a loaded backstory between Roy and The Ranch that is strongly hinted at, and which makes him singularly focused on accomplishing this task for his son.  Joel Edgerton and Kirsten Dunst are great in supporting roles.  Adam Driver as the NSA agent who is trying to figure out what is going on as well as being immensely curious about Alton is also terrific.  Bill Camp, a great character actor, has a smaller supporting role as Doak, the man sent out by Calvin Meyer to retrieve Alton and bring him back before the event.

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However, none of this film would work if Jaeden Lieberher wasn’t effective as Alton.  I’ve seen a lot of young actors and actresses give impressive performances over the last couple of years, and Lieberher stood out to me last year in St. Vincent.  He is even more impressive here.  He strikes a perfect balance in Alton between this boy who is calm and poised beyond his years and at times being overwhelmed by his abilities or taken over by their impulses.  He is inquisitive, at one point popping his head up from the Superman comic book that Lucas bought him to ask what kryptonite is, but he is also often the voice of reason in hectic situations.  It’s a great performance from a very young actor who is almost sure to be destined for big things ahead.

Midnight Special is probably best classified as a light sci-fi drama.  Strip away the sci-fi elements of Alton’s abilities, and this film boils down to a chase film, with the main characters trying to get somewhere and outside forces are trying to get them and/or prevent them from reaching their destination.  People have labeled it Spielbergian, with some comparisons to E.T. and no doubt some of the emotional elements of the story.  I can see that, but I was also reminded of last year’s Disney movie Tomorrowland.  This is probably the movie that Tomorrowland wishes that is actually was.  Regardless of the comparisons though, Midnight Special succeeds because its shines its ray of light on the tender father-son relationship between Roy and Alton, and then further expands that to include Sarah, the mom.  In a lot of ways, the family dynamic at the heart of the story is tragic as forces have kept this family apart for so long, but it ultimately hints at hope even if their reunion is short-lived.

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Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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