Mark Reviews Movies

Midnight Special (2016)


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jeff Nichols

Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Sam Shepard, Paul Sparks, David Jensen

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and action)

Running Time: 1:51

Release Date: 3/18/16 (limited); 4/1/16 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 1, 2016

Writer/director Jeff Nichols' Midnight Special begins with a series of mysteries. Some of them answered. A lot of them are not. Even the answers lead to more questions, and most of those arrive so late that Nichols would need the length of another movie to start answering them, even if he was inclined to do so. In case it isn't clear yet, he's not particularly interested in such things as explaining what's happening here, how circumstances led to those things to happen, and what the story's final revelations mean about, well, anything. This level of defiance against explanations is equally admirable and frustrating.

It's admirable because Nichols wants to cut through the conventions of his plot, which revolves around a string of inexplicable science-fiction elements, and get to the heart of the story beneath it. It's frustrating because bypassing the explanations means that we lose a clear view of the heart of the matter, too. What we know is that there's a boy, a father, a mother, a few allies, and a bunch of enemies. To one degree or another, everything else is a mystery.

The boy is Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). The father is Roy (Michael Shannon). Roy's friend is Lucas (Joel Edgerton), and the mother, whom we meet later, is Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). At the start of the movie, Roy and Lucas are on the run from the law with Alton. News reports say that the 8-year-old boy has been abducted by armed and dangerous men. Whenever the trio stops at a motel, Roy and Lucas cover the windows and the peephole of the door.

The boy came from a Texas ranch that operates like a religious cult. Their scripture readings are merely dates and strings of numbers. The leader is Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), and he sends a pair of his followers (Bill Camp and Scott Haze) to return Alton to the ranch by the end of the week. That day is vital to their beliefs for reasons of which they are unsure but to which Alton seems to be the key.

FBI agents raid the ranch, detain Calvin and his followers, and begin asking each of them questions about Alton. An agent from the NSA named Sevier (Adam Driver) is especially interested in those numbers, because they came from a satellite transmitting top-secret government information. Somehow, Alton was able to obtain it.

Maybe part of the frustration comes from the way the two major parties of the narrative seem to exist for different ends. The family unit and, to a certain extent, the allies are the elements of the story Nichols wants to tell, while the foes (Calvin, his goons, the FBI, and, later, the military) are elements of the plot that he wants to avoid but feels the need to include. The latter party is still here, though, and its members exist to provide the movie with the workings of a chase plot. They are, ultimately, a distraction, and Nichols dismisses them as soon as their purpose has been served (At least one of them simply disappears without explanation).

The point, it seems, is twofold. The first part is how Nichols gradually reveals what Alton is—a prophet, an alien, a normal boy with supernatural abilities, or something else entirely. It, also, doesn't really matter until the third act, when the chase becomes a frantic race to reach a certain set of coordinates by a specific time (Why that place and why that time are—you know the drill by now—irrelevant).

Nichols trusts that we won't care about the gaps that don't matter and that we will fill in the ones he leaves for us. He's particularly adept at this kind of elliptical storytelling, in which a scene will end before the conclusion but not before he provides the information we need to fill in the remainder. He exploits it well, too, such as during an encounter with Elden (David Jensen), a former member of the ranch who has figured out some meaning in Alton's "revelations" to the flock. Nichols knows we're anticipating one outcome but doesn't fulfill it. By contrast, there's a sequence of violence that suddenly erupts just as we have become accustomed to the fugitives' routine.

The second, more intriguing, and essential part is how the dual existence of this boy—as an otherworldly entity and as a son—affects the people in his life. Nichols also communicates this by shorthand, and the performances are vital to its impact. Shannon is the highlight as a father who will do anything to protect a son whose nature he cannot comprehend, which might be a chief reason that he will go as far as he does. Dunst is effective in a relatively limited role. Edgerton is solid as a skeptic who comes to finally believe in something while being uncertain about what that something actually is, and Driver plays his curious scientist with an almost childlike glee at the discovery of something extraordinary.

The relationships, especially the one between father and son, are the heart of Midnight Special, and they do touch upon something—how the things in which we should believe can be right in front of us. Nichols wants us to see everything else as a diversion, but he doesn't quite follow that same line of thought.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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