Thursday, April 14, 2016

In Theaters: MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016)

(US - 2016)

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols. Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Sam Shepard, Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Paul Sparks, David Jensen, Dana Gourrier, Sean Bridgers. (PG-13, 112 mins)

Since his brilliant 2008 debut SHOTGUN STORIES, Arkansas-based writer/director Jeff Nichols has explored family bonds and haunted legacies in distinct and vivid rural settings. His is a unique voice that has emerged over his follow-up efforts TAKE SHELTER (2011) and MUD (2013), a key film in the McConaissance of a few years back, in which Matthew McConaughey turned in an even better performance than he did in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, even though it was the latter that got him an Oscar. MUD was enough of a sleeper hit to get Nichols his first major-studio production, the sci-fi drama MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, though it's hardly a commercial, multiplex endeavor. Warner Bros. opened it small after sitting on it for nearly two years and changing the release date a few times, and it's the kind of film that gains traction by word of mouth. Though he's working with a bigger budget and some reasonably conservative use of special effects, Nichols keeps MIDNIGHT SPECIAL very much in line with his own cinematic niche. In a way, it's his most personal film yet, inspired by a period where his then eight-month-old son was suffering seizures and was paralyzed for a month.

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL focuses on a family that's loving but shattered nonetheless. Nichols plays his cards close to the vest, offering small details here and there and leaving it to the audience to connect the dots, a brave decision in today's multiplexes. Roy Tomlin (Nichols regular Michael Shannon) and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are the subjects of a manhunt after an Amber Alert is issued for Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), the eight-year-old adopted son of Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard). Meyer is the charismatically shady leader of a religious cult known as "The Ranch," whose Texas compound has just been raided by the FBI after months of surveillance. Meyer tells the agents in charge that Roy is Alton's biological father and that Roy and his estranged wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) recently left The Ranch. Meyer preaches a series of numbers that the FBI and NSA investigator Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) believe are top-secret coordinates transmitted from government satellites. Both are incredulous when Meyer tells them the numbers came out of Alton's mouth and he believes he's a vessel for God's word. While Meyer dispatches his own hired guns (Bill Camp, Scott Haze) to find Alton, the boy is being taken to an unknown location in Florida by his father and Lucas, a childhood friend of Roy's who lost touch with him after Roy's family joined Meyer's cult. For reasons that become clear as the film goes on, Alton cannot be out in daylight and must wear dark goggles that keep in check powerful beams of light that emanate from his eyes when he gets his "messages" and noise-canceling headphones in an attempt to keep him from picking up radio signals. When he brings down a government satellite and it crashes in pieces on a gas station in the middle of the night, the FBI turns the case over to Sevier, the NSA, and the military, who want to get to the bottom of Alton's unique abilities, but even they aren't prepared for the reality of Alton or his origin.

A very allegorical, metaphorical story open to a number of interpretations--is Alton a symbol for Jesus? Is he possessed? Is he from another world? Is he a young superhero learning to control his powers? Is he terminally ill?--MIDNIGHT SPECIAL may be Nichols' most personal film yet. In dealing with the situation involving his own ill infant son and the recovery that inspired him to conceive this story, Nichols gained new perspectives on parenthood that resonate in the relationship between Roy and Alton. Shannon, rarely a sympathetic figure onscreen, is often heartbreaking as a loving father struggling to put his family back together and willing to do whatever it takes, even sacrificing innocent bystanders, to fulfill his role as protector and make sure his son is safe. Much has been made of the Spielbergian, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND nature of MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, though I'd argue that a good chunk of the film could almost pass for John Carpenter in STARMAN mode or Joe Dante in one of his darker moods. Regardless of what's the bigger stylistic influence, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL feels like an early 1980s film lost in time, and that's meant to be a compliment. Nichols demonstrates an ability to tell a bigger story that grows more reliant on special effects as it proceeds while still keeping it grounded in his own style and tone. Nichols loves setting films in rural places and makes great use of empty highways and back country roads, and it's telling that MIDNIGHT SPECIAL's weakest section is its effects-filled finale, where the payoff doesn't quite match the buildup (also, Shepard's Calvin Meyer just disappears from the film), with an open-to-interpretation ending that feels a little hoary and played-out. Still, for a film that's bigger than anything he's done ($20 million is probably still considered "low-budget," but that's double what MUD cost), MIDNIGHT SPECIAL succeeds in the way it very much remains the distinctive work of its maker. That's something that's unusual to see in today's movies, particularly ones with big-studio money that gradually roll out to nationwide release. This isn't Nichols' best film, but it's still a very good one that's better than a lot of what's out there now, and with a 4-for-4 record, it's pretty clear by this point that this is someone we can start calling an important American filmmaker.

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