film Jeff Nichols

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL Review: Sci-Fi Parenting is Hard

Monday, March 21, 2016 Rob Samuelson

Midnight Special

Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver
Rating: Four stars out of five
In limited release now, opens in Chicago April 1

Near the end of Midnight Special, Michael Shannon's character, Roy, bends to his knee to look into his son Alton's (Jaeden Lieberher) eyes. They have spent the film on the run from police, their former religious community, and the United States government in order for Roy and his childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) to bring Alton to a mysterious field so he can do … something. It might be a religious enlightenment for all of humanity. It might be the end of the world. It might be first contact with alien life. No matter what, it's frightening for all involved, because even those with the highest amount of information are still largely in the dark about the ultimate outcome of their journey.

Roy, who before the events of the movie, had been kept from his gifted son for years, has finally overcome the parental rustiness that accompanies their situation as he meets his son eye-to-eye. Gone is the tough “this is the way things need to be” posturing and the stress of trying to avoid imprisonment or death everywhere they go. All that's left is a weary honesty about their father-son dynamic built on a universal truth about the relationship between generations.

“That's the deal,” Roy says, referring to the notion that he will never stop worrying about his son no matter what happens. No matter how grown up Alton appears to be, no matter how in control of his surroundings – supernaturally so in this case – Roy will have Alton on his mind and do whatever it is he can to create a winning situation for his son. But those attempts might be futile and Roy knows it. The mental and emotional conflict of this message is obvious in the taut bulging of Shannon's jaw, a forehead vein pumping, and eyes that cannot guarantee success. He can only tell Alton that he will have his son's back and will never stop loving him.

It's one beautiful, low-key moment in a science fiction thriller filled with them. That's because this is not a run-of-the-mill sci-fi adventure piece. It's a sci-fi adventure piece by Jeff Nichols in his first major studio project. Through three previous films, 2007's Shotgun Stories, 2011's Take Shelter (on the shortlist for best of the decade), and 2013's Mud, Nichols has carved out a niche for himself as a storyteller of the American South. His work focuses on the anxieties and lessons learned by the working class – or the downright destitute – of that region as they struggle to maintain halfway comfortable lives in the face of change they cannot control. None of this leaves his filmmaking when reworking his style to fit the contours of a nervy chase picture, and it leaves Midnight Special in a weird but exhilarating place as its genres tug at each other to create something fascinating, even if not every element is perfectly executed.

Midnight Special shows some seams when it comes time to display the visual aspects of its science fiction trappings. Whenever Alton's powers manifest themselves, there is little more than some bright LED-style blue lights that come out of his eyes. The CGI alternately appears to be too much and too little for each incident, making it hard to gauge as a viewer the extent of Alton's powers. This would not be an issue if there was a gradual increase in the powers' scope, but some incidents look weaker than ones that came before, creating a sense of confusion that takes away from the dawning realization of how powerful this boy is.

And yet, the emotional impact of some of these instances is extraordinary. The religious importance placed on Alton by the family's former cult community gets to the heart of how aimless people look for answers in things they don't understand. But others within a community may not be true believers and they may have other, darker impulses they wish to extract from their quasi-religious ceremonies. There is power within Alton and those who possess him hope to harness it for their own advancement or worse. It is left unsaid, but there is a sexually predatory overtone to Alton's “sessions” with older members of the cult. It is horrifying and contextualizes the otherwise seemingly rash choices made by Roy and Lucas to bring the boy to a place of safety.

The only other minor deficiency of Midnight Special is how it treats Kirsten Dunst's character, Sarah. Dunst fills her with regret over the decisions that led to Alton being placed in danger, but she is given little else to do within the plot of the film. Unlike Jessica Chastain in Take Shelter or Reese Witherspoon in Mud, there is little else for Dunst to do with her female lead than to look sad and wish for a better life for her son. It makes one wonder whether character building moments for Sarah were left on the cutting room floor, because Nichols has a history with this type of character, and it is a good history.

Minor quibbles aside, Midnight Special accomplishes much. Its bass-heavy score by David Wingo is unsettling to the max, leaving the entire theater shaking in otherwise quiet moments, leaving the impression that nothing good can come when these characters reach their destination. But the doom is leavened with Adam Driver's NSA agent, a hapless middle management type tasked with running an operation for an otherwise frightening and faceless organization – he is a little out of his league and his boyish curiosity of Alton and his family suggests he is not fully committed to his employers' cause.

But the film's core is placed in that parental moment of letting go. It is too soon for Roy, but it would be too soon no matter when it happened – whether Alton is 12 or 25 makes no difference. The honesty he has about his love for his son, coupled with his position of powerlessness to actually create a safe environment for Alton, is the complicated stuff of great movies.

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