Thursday, July 21, 2016

Midnight Special Movie Review

The enticement of big studio backing, larger budgets, and wider distribution must be great to successful indie filmmakers. Jeff Nichols had a string of well-received films that did well on the festival circuit and then got a lot more money for his fourth feature, Midnight Special. Unlike what often happens with directors who display talent on the small scale, Nichols didn’t move on to the latest superhero movie or some other blockbuster. Instead he took the money to make his own story and make it without the limitations he surely faced in the past due to budget constraints.

As the film opens, two men are on the lam with a boy of about ten years old. News reports describe one of the men, Roy Tomlin (played by Nichols regular collaborator Michael Shannon) as armed and dangerous. The second man, Lucas, is played by Joel Edgerton. Contrary to the news report, the boy Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) doesn’t appear to be distressed or in any danger. It’s that kind of set up that establishes a consistent tone of confusion created by a disconnect between the information we’re fed and what we see transpiring on screen. As the story unfolds, more elements are revealed that help unravel the mystery of who this boy is and why these men are running from the law with him. Nichols’ screenplay also wastes no time in introducing us to a preacher played by Sam Shepard, who leads a sort of cult known as The Ranch. The boy is important to them. The mystery deepens even as new information comes to us.

Those early scenes are masterfully directed and creaking with tension. The not knowing what’s happening, the opaque dialogue, the nighttime travel, and the quiet are conducted by Nichols like an orchestra. He specializes in a kind of southern gothic storytelling that mythologizes the south and simple living. But Midnight Special defies simple genre labels. Is it psychological drama like his second feature Take Shelter? Sure. But it’s also thriller, espionage, and sci-fi rolled into one.

Alton is imbued with some kind of special power – a bright light emanates from his eyes that has the power to captivate those who get caught in his gaze. He is some kind of savior or prophet or channel for The Ranch. Whatever he is, they say they need him back within four days. The feds are also chasing the boy because apparently he has had some kind of access to coordinates that are highly sensitive to the NSA, represented here by Paul Sevier (Adam Driver).

But as much success as Nichols has in building suspense and mystery and grabbing your attention in the first thirty minutes, he also fails to maintain any of it for the duration of the movie. What begins as genuine intrigue slowly fizzles to apathy. It occurred to me as the sci-fi elements started presenting themselves more obviously that maybe there is a disconnect, a personal failing of mine perhaps, between a science fiction storyline and an intimate family drama. Maybe my mind was having trouble processing the supernatural without the large scale and the massive effects. But even the nature of the family drama began to bore me. And besides, my admiration for examples such as Signs refute it.

By the time they reached Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), I no longer cared who or why he was. And I know that Nichols’ films are not as simple as outward appearances suggest. Take Shelter could be equally interpreted as about a man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia as about a man with prescient knowledge of the future. For that man and his family, they are one and the same. Likewise, Midnight Special touches on themes involving the challenges of raising children who require special treatment or attention. It also deals with how as a parent you might handle the knowledge of an inevitable loss of your child. What Nichols builds around these themes are the grand metaphors that represent these complex feelings in more concrete terms.

While this interpretation is valid, it’s hard to ignore or cast aside everything else we see on screen. And one of the film’s biggest problems is that it builds toward a massive moment of awe (Nichols borrows heavily from Spielberg, especially E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) attempting to create that warm sense of wonder that Spielberg excels at. He comes up short, never more so than in the film’s closing moments when the expectations and promise of something grand and magnificent finally materialize and then leave a deflated sense of resignation. What should have been a feeling of breathlessness or at least suggestion of something wonderful winds up hampered by reliance on some bewildering technical wizardry. Nichols has regularly done so much in his movies with so little. This time it’s a case of accomplishing something less than the sum of the parts he’s assembled. What a shame given the promise of the first act.

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