REVIEW: Midnight Special [2016]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½


Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 112 minutes | Release Date: March 18th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Jeff Nichols
Writer(s): Jeff Nichols

“Where do you belong?”

Is young Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) the savior of the human race, born to unsuspecting parents inside a cult known as The Ranch in order to bring them salvation? Is he somehow an expert hacker infiltrating the NSA’s foolproof satellite transmissions courtesy of an uncanny technokinetic power no one can explain? Or is he simply a boy, a son, hunted by forces that do not understand him—forces that would scoop him up and use him for their own selfish gains as either a God or a weapon? Well, if you ask Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) the answer will always be the latter. Even when Ranch preacher Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) stole him to be his conduit to the sky, Roy remained as protector, father, and hope.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols has stated in interviews how Midnight Special was a response to his own fatherhood and the bond formed with his child. We like to believe a parent will stop at nothing to protect his/her offspring, but reality often delivers a truth far removed from such an ideal. I think this is why many have voiced their displeasure in the film’s overly sentimental tone, calling the proceedings melodramatic or cloying when it’s really anything but. Nichols setting the story’s beginnings in a commune setting populated by brainwashed believers on a path they’ve created for themselves isn’t a mistake. There’s cause for Alton’s removal from father and mother (Kirsten Dunst‘s Sarah): that distance allows Roy the narrative potency to ensure he never lets go of him again.

We’re dropped in the middle of the action as soon as the opening credits’ black screen cuts to Roy and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) readying their next move under the shroud of darkness. We don’t know what their relationship is to one another or their connection to the boy wearing swimming goggles and reading comic books with a flashlight. Facts are gleaned thanks to a TV news report describing the kidnapping of a young boy and the assumption that his captor is Roy Tomlin, but Alton doesn’t seem to be in danger—at least not from the man the media believes he should fear. Their motel room windows are covered in cardboard; Lucas drives with car lights off and night-vision on. Where they’re headed is anyone’s guess.

This doesn’t stop multiple groups from looking as we cut to The Ranch and Calvin ordering his lieutenants Doak (Bill Camp) and Levi (Scott Haze) to find the boy and bring him back by any means necessary—a clarification that sinks even his most devoted follower’s heart. Before they can leave, however, the FBI arrives with search warrants and school buses to take these Amish-like parishioners away for questioning. This is where we meet NSA Agent Sevier (Adam Driver) so that some details can become clearer. Apparently the boy hears electronic signals launched through the air, his oration of them proving the backbone to Calvin’s sermons and therefore his faith. Judgment Day is coming in four days and no one’s prepared to experience it without Alton.

But this only scratches the surface. Soon we experience the impossible: beams of light, earthquakes manifesting out of thin air, and the violent chaos of a meteor shower all originating from this otherwise unassuming child. Whether anything anyone says about him is true or not, Alton is most assuredly important and this goes beyond the love of a parent as Lucas’ involvement comes at a price he didn’t have to pay considering he wasn’t raised in The Ranch with them. Something about the boy spoke to him; something proved Roy wasn’t kidnapping his son for no reason. Time is running out, the chase closes in around them, and the number of people they can trust is constantly in flux as another world is discovered in the light.

Comparisons to Steven Spielberg‘s science fiction heyday are apt as Midnight Special is ostensibly E.T. with the intellectual resonance of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The adventure is to bring Alton to a designated place for something no one is prepared to experience. Is he being called home? Is he readying for ascension? Roy doesn’t know anything besides the knowledge that he must get him there in time. He knows full well this mission will end with him never seeing his son again—either via success or failure at the hands of the cult or government—but he has no choice. It’s not about faith or fear, but instead absolute love. It’s about sacrificing everything to keep his son protected even from the boy himself.

The film is also similar to Nichols’ own sci-fi mood piece Take Shelter, similar enough in its story beats and mystery to call it a family-friendly version of that sophomore effort. Nichols asserts full control over the dissemination of information so we never understand too much too early and there’s no guessing what might happen next because we aren’t in possession of the whole story until three-quarters of the way through. By then the story itself has even altered into something wholly different and much wider in scope. His use of special effects enhance the narrative rather than overshadow it—a subtle glimmer in the grass, the shaky screen of danger, and the gorgeously futuristic architecture of a universe Nichols leaves completely to our own devices to interpret.

That’s the piece’s real beauty: Nichols faith in us to shape a meaning steeped in our uniquely personal belief systems, scientifically and spiritually, around what he’s provided. He purposefully clashes these realms of cult and government, paralleling their distinct forms of greed and ego against the selfless machinations of a father desperately seeking freedom from both. It’s not about faith in the math or faith in the messages; it’s about faith in a boy, one that Lieberher performs with a wonderful strength well beyond his years. We cannot project our desires upon our children because doing so will always minimize their potential to exceed our wildest dreams. Only when Alton speaks and wants do we approach enlightenment. We cannot control the unknown, but we can assist its evolution.


photography:
[1] © 2016 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures Caption: JAEDEN LIEBERHER as Alton in director Jeff Nichols’ sci-fi thriller “MIDNIGHT SPECIAL,” a presentation of Warner Bros. Pictures in association with Faliro House Productions, released by Warner Bros. Pictures.
[2] © 2016 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC Photo Credit: Ben Rothstein Caption: (L-r) MICHAEL SHANNON as Roy and JOEL EDGERTON as Lucas in director Jeff Nichols’ sci-fi thriller “MIDNIGHT SPECIAL,” a presentation of Warner Bros. Pictures in association with Faliro House Productions, released by Warner Bros. Pictures.
[3] © 2016 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC Photo Credit: Ben Rothstein Caption: ADAM DRIVER as Sevier in director Jeff Nichols’ sci-fi thriller “MIDNIGHT SPECIAL,” a presentation of Warner Bros. Pictures in association with Faliro House Productions, released by Warner Bros. Pictures.

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