Few films hang on to such threads of suspension of disbelief as Midnight Special. I’m even going to expect people to say the film fails for it, but its hook — the notion of faith — also applies to the audience. It is in this space of mystery that writer/director Jeff Nichols made his mark with Take Shelter (Take Shelter offers powerful entry into film’s recent history of schizophrenic cinema), as a sort of art house version of M.Night Shyamalan. Take Shelter follows a man (Michael Shannon) whose visions could either point to his insanity or a gift to portend the future. The story walks a thin line to keep the audience doubting the lead character until the film’s final, eerie shot. Nichols’s next film, Mud (Film review: Mud makes for OK film but misses exploiting the power of mystery), felt less impressive. It spent too much time trying to spell out the feelings of a young boy (Tye Sheridan) who decides to help a killer (Matthew McConaughey) hiding out on an island reunite with the woman he killed for (Reese Witherspoon). The film wasn’t bad, and it featured some strong performances. However, it felt over-long, dwelling on unnecessary exposition when Nichols already proved he could do a lot to propel a film by showing respect to the audience’s ability to infer while still tapping into its feelings.
That said, I am pleased to report that Midnight Special hardly bothers with explaining the mysteries that drives the film’s actions and motivates its characters. Jaeden Lieberher plays Alton Meyer, a kid who doesn’t belong in this world and is supernaturally falling apart. He wears swimming goggles to keep his eyes from shooting blinding beams of light into others’ eyes and headphones to block out radio and satellite signals. Having grown up in a cult populated by people who look like they belong to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, he’s treated as a holy conduit on earth (the eye beams offer some unexplained “enlightenment” to those who come in contact with them). The sermons written by the group’s leader (Sam Shepard), who is also Alton’s adoptive father, are based on mysterious words that come from Alton’s fits to “speak in tongues” (damn those satellite transmissions). When the sermons start including classified information from the government, like “Meridian Alpha” (whatever that is), the government comes looking for the boy.
But the film’s strength isn’t so much in its convoluted yet nebulous backstory, as it is in the literal drive to take this boy to some sort of safety. The film kicks off with Alton on the run, kidnapped by the boy’s biological father (Nichols’ regular Shannon) and a friend of his (Joel Edgerton). This is what the film really is: a chase spiced up with some surreal complications due to the unstable forces inside the boy. Rounding out the film’s fine cast are Adam Driver who plays Paul Sevier, an NSA agent tasked with capturing the boy, Bill Camp and Scott Haze as Alton believers who will do whatever they need to bring the child back to the compound and finally Kirsten Dunst, as Alton’s estranged mother.
Again, Nichols presents layered performances provided by fine actors. Paul accepts his job with a conflicted reluctance that doesn’t turn the government to another easy target of villainy. Though Shannon has proven he has played creepy in the past well, he dials it down to play a father with his own conflicts between the safety of his child and a sort of strange, deeper connection to Alton’s powers. But the uncanny characterization of Alton, is the performance that keeps giving. There are times he seems coolly decided with his fate to escape and be at a certain location on a certain date. Then there are other moments when his powers completely surprise him. There is often inconsistency in the characterization of these people, but it works to maintain a genuine sense of suspense. In fact, as little details arise during the pursuit, some will notice a rich backstory that informs the film’s stakes.
The need for backstory in Hollywood films has grown out of hand when yet another Batman movie has to get into that familiar origin story. The joy in Midnight Special comes from its surprises. Not since that other Shyamalan film (Unbreakable), have we had a film that explores the clash of super powers with the banal with so much respect to the limits of human understanding. Even if there are comic books to explain things (and Midnight Special touches on that in typically reserved fashion), it’s another thing to embrace these powers in a film concerned with feeling grounded in a familiar reality instead of, say, a fictitious city like Metropolis. Nichols similarly respects the difficulty of gun violence to make for some startling, clumsy, yet fearsome encounters with Alton’s pursuers. Grounding the film further, is an old-fashioned ‘70s or early ’80s feel, from the washed out colors to the film’s ragged vehicles, including the dated looking FBI helicopter Paul rides in at some point. Besides harking back to a simpler time of one-off sci-fi films, like Starman and E.T., the earthy props and colors offer a stark contrast to Alton’s literal glowing moments.
It builds to an ending that will not answer all the film’s questions and inspire even more. Still, it’s not a film that insults the audience’s intelligence, as it’s designed as a chase film with startling narrative gifts from casual reveals into character to shocking moments of confrontation. There’s a sense of Nichols’ great control of cinematic storytelling. Even though it doesn’t offer anything as new and alien as Under the Skin (Under the Skin proves sci-fi is a genre best served obtusely), Midnight Special features some of that film’s artistic and ineffable principles. Above all, Nichols’ new movie will always keep you riveted and interested as to what happens next, down to the the film’s final frame. You can do much worse going to the multiplex this weekend.
Midnight Special runs 112 minutes and is rated PG-13. It has already opened in some markets but expanded a bit more this past Friday, April 8, which includes several in our South Florida area. For screening details in your area, visit this link and enter your zip code. Warner Bros. invited us to a preview screening earlier this week for the purpose of this review.