Revisiting: Midnight Special

5 Jan

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

by Tanner Smith

Jeff Nichols (“Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter,” “Mud”) had two films released in 2016: “Midnight Special” and “Loving.” I initially gave three-and-a-half stars to “Midnight Special” and gave it credit for being what it was even if it didn’t exactly leave so much of an impact on me upon first viewing. And I gave four stars (my highest rating) to “Loving” simply for being a well-made drama with excellent acting and a timeless message.

How many times have I seen “Loving” since its original theatrical release two years ago? Once.

Now, how many times have I seen “Midnight Special” since its original release? About eight or nine. Maybe ten.

There are movies that I know are great because all the right elements are in place (and I’ll give them credit for that, hence my four-star review of “Loving”)…but with a lot of those movies, I feel like as time goes on, I realize they hardly require more than a couple viewings because once I have the movie I expect to be great, there aren’t many surprises. As a result, I “admire” the movie more than I “like” it.”

Then there are movies that I don’t have many expectations for or that I hardly know anything about, and then I get pleasantly surprised by what’s presented to me. Maybe I won’t think much of it at first, but as time goes on, I’ll feel the urge to watch it again and learn something more the second time. Then, I think to myself there’s probably far more here for which I originally gave credit. More time goes on, and I watch the movie a few more times, and I don’t realize until later…it’s becoming one of my new favorite movies.

That kind of movie is so fascinating, especially when I think back to when I originally saw it for the first time. Movies like “The Dirties,” “Whiplash,” “Ruby Sparks,” “Tex,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Thank You For Smoking,” “The Last Detail,” “Frances Ha”–all of these are among my favorite films now, and I wouldn’t have guessed upon first seeing them! They knew they were good…I didn’t know they’d become my faves!

My point is Jeff Nichols’ “Midnight Special” gets better and better each time I see it. His previous films–“Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter,” and “Mud”–are among my favorites, and I find myself thinking…I might actually like “Midnight Special” MORE than “Mud!” (And Midnight Special didn’t even make my best-films-of-2016 list!!)

“Midnight Special” is a sci-fi road-trip drama featuring two men who are on the run with a little boy (the son of one of the men) who seems to have special abilities. The government seeks him because he seems to possess secret information, the religious cult that held him and raised him want him back because they see him as a savior, and the boy’s father just wants to keep him safe.

“Midnight Special” was Nichols’ first studio achievement (making a film for Warner Bros.). And unlike many indie filmmakers who get their time to shine in the studio system, he was able to maintain final cut. (The budget needed for the production was small, so WB agreed to give him plenty of room.) Part of me doesn’t want to be so cynical as to how limited space directors are given when working in the mainstream…but another part of me truly appreciates the freedom that Nichols was given. At the very least, couldn’t you imagine the vagueness of this story’s execution thrown out the window for simple explanations? (At its worst, they probably would’ve had Adam Driver’s NSA character deliver every possible answer to each raised question, a la the psychiatrist’s deduction in Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”)

What I love about “Midnight Special” is exactly that: its vagueness. There is development upon development upon development in this story, and none of it feels forced or tacked-on. It feels very well thought-out, and I admire Nichols for putting faith into his audience to stay with the oddness (and the realism added to the strange and unusual) all the way through to the end. Why is the boy wearing goggles? Why do his eyes glow? How is he able to do the things he does? How does he know what he knows? Why does the government want him so badly? What were the cult’s intentions? And so on. It’s a delight seeing this story unfold–instead of being angry for getting more questions than answers, I’m actually intrigued by what’s already happening in front of me. That’s a sign of great filmmaking (and it reminds me of why Nichols is one of my favorite filmmakers).

Even the characters are somewhat vague–we just know enough about why we should root for them and yet we have to fill in the blanks ourselves about what brought them here. That’s another thing I love about this movie: all the central characters–Roy (Michael Shannon), Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), and Sevier (Adam Driver)–are so interesting and beautifully realized while still leaving much for me to think about with them. I don’t know if I have everything right involving their backgrounds or even their true intentions…but it’s fun to think about.

All of that leads to the ending, which confused many people (and most critics who somewhat resemble people) even more than when “10 Cloverfield Lane” ultimately gave its audience what it was secretly building up to. Like “10 Cloverfield Lane,” “Midnight Special” ended its story with so much and yet so little at the same time.

Something else I love about this movie (and what I touched upon in the review originally) is the theme of parenthood. While the agents see this little boy as a weapon and the cult sees him as a savior, the heroes are the ones who want to look out for his wellbeing. And it’s during this journey that they have to ask themselves what truly is best for this special child. Even if Roy worries about him when he has no choice but to let him fulfill his destiny, he knows that’s part of being a parent as well.

However, that does lead me to my one little nitpick of the film. Alton’s mother, Sarah, reveals to Lucas in one line of dialogue that she was broken apart from the cult that raised him and that Roy couldn’t do anything but watch as the cult leader practically took him as his own. (This also indicates that Roy was part of the cult long before he met Sarah, and perhaps she ultimately didn’t belong.) “He watched another man raise Alton for two years–something I couldn’t even do.” She’s reunited with her son for less than 24 hours on this desperate trek when she realizes she may have to let him go. She’s the one to tell Roy that they all have to be ready to lose him… I don’t know if I buy her acceptance of that, considering she’s probably been leading a lonely life ever since she was separated from her son for two years. But still, that’s a minor nitpick I have with the film.

On a deeper level, “Midnight Special” is more than mainstream sci-fi entertainment. It’s a wonderful, brilliant film that deserves more credit than I originally gave it. Maybe someday, I’ll give “Midnight Special” the “Revised Review With Spoilers” treatment so that I can give a detailed analysis about what I think it all means, and thus, I can go into why I embrace this film wholeheartedly.

And maybe I should give Loving another viewing and “Revisit” it sometime soon…

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: