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Review: Midnight Special

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MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

Heading into the Midnight Special’s climactic finale, asked by his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) whether he’s scared, protective father Roy Meyer (Michael Shannon) answers positively. Yet, as Alton tells his dad to not worry about him, the man reveals to the little boy how that’s impossible, because “that’s the deal”. Roy obviously refers to the way parents feel ever since a child is born into the world, becoming their number one priority and this brief, yet poignant moment sums up Midnight Special’s true essence as a family drama beneath the surface of thrilling road movie with sci-fi/supernatural undertones.

If you’ve seen any of writer/director Jeff Nichols’ previous three films you’re definitely in for a treat, but if the trailer astutely edited in commercial fashion by Warner Bros appeals only to your thirst for an early summer blockbuster, then maybe you’ll be disappointed by the non-typically-Hollywood way this clever and sensitive filmmaker tells his stories. Nichols’ movies in fact are character-driven slow-burners built upon nuanced tension and tend to play on the audience’s ability to make up their own minds about the story’s outcome rather than providing neat answers.

The brilliant Michael Shannon, one of the best actors working in Hollywood today, has been on board with Nichols’ cinematic vision since day one. He starred in the filmmaker’s debut, the acerbic crime drama Shotgun Stories (2007) and then left us in awe with his turn in Nichols’ sophomore effort, Take Shelter (2011), another family drama with chilling supernatural elements, whose enigmatic feel is undoubtedly reprised by the director in his latest film.

Structurally, Midnight Special is a different kind of movie as Shannon’s Roy is a father on the run from the FBI and a religious cult that are after his son’s mysterious gift, whilst in Take Shelter, Shannon’s Curtis is a father trying to keep his family safe from his apocalyptic visions by building an underground shelter. However, whether going outwardly into the dark of night or staying inwardly within the pitch black of underground walls, these two fathers played by the formidable Kentucky actor are both preoccupied with protecting their families from a more or less defined outside threat.

The Arkansas native filmmaker has spoken about how two different moments in his life have influenced these stories: in Take Shelter he channelled his anxieties about becoming a father whilst Midnight Special echoes his worries for a health scare involving his son. It all makes sense when you look deeply at these films’ thematic core and although disguised under the attractive lure of a genre movie, what matters in the end is the human factor.

The tagline for Midnight Special reads “He’s not like us” referring to Alton’s mysterious powers but don’t expect some sort of E.T.-Phone-Home moment here. Despite vintage Spielberg, especially with Close Encounters (1977), is admittedly a huge influence on this project, just as much as Carpenter’s classic Starman (1984), Nichols confirms to keep developing his own voice and there’s no denying he’s blooming into one of American cinema’s most peculiar and interesting auteurs. Yet not everyone will have the patience to stomach his flair for unconventional storytelling and the lack of clearly spelled out explanations about what’s going on.

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Midnight Special begins in media res with Roy and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) anxiously making sure the coast is clear outside the motel room where they’re hiding Roy’s son, Alton, whilst the news on TV are talking about their fugitive status. Alton seems just like ever other little boy at first, reading his comic books, but the goggles he wears most of the times aren’t an endearing trait of a kid who likes to dress up like his favourite superheroes. Alton needs those to prevent beaming white lights from shooting out of his eyes and wrecking havoc.

This incipit already gives you a good sense of the kind of filmmaking we’re dealing with here, as we’re literally thrown into these people’s lives and currently messed up situation, without knowing anything about it or them. And Nichols not only takes his time unveiling such information but he does so indirectly without getting too deep into their backgrounds. Some people will find that frustrating since, by the time we reach the climax, you may argue we haven’t glimpsed into these people’s past and witnessed enough in order to feel for their fate whatever it will be.

What makes Nichols’ films enjoyable though is that he provides the audience with everything they actually need in order to process those feelings and decide how to feel about it for themselves, without being necessarily led into a specific direction. He achieves that with the cinematic tools at his disposal, starting with the great casts he puts together and this time around is no difference. Nichols’ muse Shannon who is notorious for his fierce intensity, delivers a more restrained and subtle performance here matching the frequency of the often underrated Kirsten Dunst in the role of the boy’s mother who painfully chose to leave the cult, even if it meant leaving her son behind.

Aussie Joel Edgerton, besides having recently transitioned behind the camera, keeps impressing even when in a supporting role and it’s no surprise how Nichols has cast him as the lead for his next film. Adam Driver proves why he earned his ticket to the galaxy far, far away, playing the nerdy NSA analyst sent to investigate why Alton seems to have decrypted classified government information. He adds his own distinctive natural touch to a role that could’ve otherwise turned out to be cliché and provides an understated comedic relief, dispensed by the script in the right dosage. Last but not least, a mention is needed for Jaeden Lieberher, the kind of child actor with a rare maturity and sensibility who truly reads between the lines and crafts a believable character rather than a caricature, especially for a key role like this one.

The best thing about Midnight Special is indeed the level of filmmaking craft behind it, which you can admire ever since frame one and then relish in it by the time the story goes all out with its twist and a moderate amount of convincingly looking CGI is employed. Nichols was after a natural look: from the wardrobe and set dressing, to the lighting and locations, to the way Alton’s powers emerge. That’s why he chose to shoot film, not only for its realistic quality but also to challenge himself as a filmmaker.

“The reason you shoot on film is because it’s the most organic representation of life… when it’s daytime. It lives and breathes and feels honest. The problem is, at night, this medium that allows such natural images completely changes because now you have to light it and it becomes artifice. If you roll a camera at night without lights, it’s just black; it can’t see like our eyes see.  So I purposefully wrote a night-based story, knowing we would shoot on film, and knowing we would have to master how to light a film at night and make it look real.”

Midnight Special is Nichols’ first film to be distributed by a major studio, Warner Brothers, and despite having been in talks to direct Warner’s Aquaman, he’s recently opted out of the possible job, hinting at his lack of compatibility with the type of system involved in the making of such a project. The talented filmmaker doesn’t rule himself out of being involved with the big machine in the future but his candid interviews on the topic give us hope that when that happens, it’ll be without losing sight of his artistic vision.

4-out-of-5

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