Midnight Special (2016)

13 Dec

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

A lot goes into raising and protecting a child…and to say no one does a bang-up job doing it in “Midnight Special” is an understatement. When characters aren’t holding this kid captive, others are on the run with him from the government. You see, the child is special…meaning he has special supernatural abilities, and he needs to be protected. By the end, the people who have his best interests at heart aren’t even entirely sure they made the right decision. (No spoilers here, btw.)

“Midnight Special” is a science-fiction drama brought to us by writer-director Jeff Nichols, one of my favorite filmmakers working today. While this film isn’t quite up there with his previous films (“Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter,” and “Mud”—all three I hold in very high regard), I still think it has a lot to offer, particularly in terms of its themes of parenting and guidance.

The film is also in the same vein as something like Disney’s “Escape to Witch Mountain” and John Carpenter’s “Starman,” as people go on the road on the run from other people who are out to get this person who could be from another world and brought here to bring a message to humanity.

As the film opens, two men—Roy (Nichols regular Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton)—are in a motel room, watching a news story about a manhunt for a kidnapped 8-year-old boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). Alton is in the room with him, meaning they’re the ones who have taken him. Alton doesn’t seem nervous or scared by them at all; in fact, Roy is the boy’s father. But it’s back on the road again, as authorities are hot on their trail, and we see the people who have looked after Alton before. It’s a religious cult run a welcome Sam Shepard cameo who believes something is coming soon and that Alton is their savior. Things get more complicated when it turns out this cult has worshipped numeric sequences brought to them by Alton, and these numbers mean something to the government, who now want to find Alton to know how he knew about them. The numbers also lead to a specific location, which Roy and Lucas try to get to.

For much of the movie, we’re not sure of who (or what) exactly Alton is. Why does he wear protective goggles? Why does he know what no one else knows? Is he from another planet? Is he the Second Coming? What all can he do with his abilities?

And with whom does he truly belong? We’re rooting for Roy to keep this boy safe, and he tries his best to protect him, but he’s not quite as well-equipped as he thinks he is and sometimes makes sloppy decisions. Lucas (not a family member but an old friend of Roy’s) does too, but again, he wants to look out for him too. Soon, Roy’s estranged wife, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), is brought into the mix, and she loves the boy too. As they eventually get some kind of answer as to what Alton’s true purpose is, both parents have to make an important decision about what’s best for him. I’m entertained by the road-trip aspect of “Midnight Special,” but it’s the parental aspect that’s the most fascinating and could cause discussion about what it means to be responsible for someone.

The truth reveals itself at the end of their journey, and while it doesn’t answer every question people might have about what has unfolded, it doesn’t choose not to say certain things. I’ll admit I was unsure about the resolution upon the first viewing, but watching it again made me reconsider something else that was on my mind about it. (Besides, it’s not like I wanted Nichols to have the conflicted NSA specialist character played by Adam Driver to come out and spell out to us what everything meant.)

“Midnight Special” is very well-made with gripping cinematography by Adam Stone and with Nichols showing his strengths in his first studio film. It’s also wonderfully acted, with great performances by everyone in the cast, especially Michael Shannon who turns in some of his most subtle work. And more importantly, it reminds us of the power of visual storytelling. It’s an enthralling film that delighted me, shocked me, and kept me engrossed even after I left the theater.

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