Thursday, September 01, 2016

Something Special

Though writer-director Jeff Nichols has released only four movies to date (with a fifth coming soon), there are a number of critics who already heap lavish praise upon him. I'd never seen any of those films until recently, when I caught his latest, Midnight Special.

Midnight Special is the story of Alton Meyer, an unusual 8-year-old boy with powerful mental abilities. His biological father Roy has taken Alton back from the religious cult that made a him a figurehead, and is now rushing to get the boy to a set of geographic coordinates by a specific time, where... something will happen. Assisting Roy is his good friend Lucas and the boy's mother Sarah. But stacked against them all are the pursuing cult members and the US government, all after Alton for reasons of their own.

This is a moody film -- sometimes sullen, sometimes uplifting, but always deep in the weeds of some emotion or another. As a director, Nichols frames shots to heighten this, with stark contrasts of light and darkness, uncomfortable close-ups, and more. There are only intermittent moments of spectacle in the film, but it is nevertheless a very visual film throughout.

The movie does little to explain itself. Exposition is sparse, and the movie begins with the action already past a point of no return: Alton, Roy, and Lucas are all on the run. You must be patient and accept some confusion as the story very slowly explains itself. For the most part, I think this is a decision that serves the movie well. The mystery of "what's going on?" is a compelling one, and you're immediately drawn in, wanting to know the answers.

Where I have reservations about the film is how it's similarly inscrutable when it comes to the characters. It's sort of an answer that Alton is special, and further that his parents want to help him because he's their son. But how did they become embroiled in a cult in the first place? What was the falling out between the parents? You never get an answer to such questions, and so the motivations of the characters are sometimes just as opaque as the narrative.

But helping this is an excellent cast of committed actors. You can never really find a moment where the things people do makes seems wrong, even if you can't quite understand why they're doing them. Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, and Adam Driver are all compelling forces in the film. And child actor Jaeden Lieberher is profoundly creepy, strangely adult and measured in a way that totally sells the science-fiction elements of the story.

I wouldn't praise Midnight Special as highly as some critics have. Nevertheless, I'd grade it a B+. Movies like it don't come along too often. (Indeed, the movie most like it -- Close Encounters of the Third Kind -- is almost 40 years old.) So you may want to check it out now that it's here.

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