MONTE YAZZIE ~ THE FOOTHILLS FOCUS ~4/6/16
I assure you this is not the new “Credence Clearwater Revival” biopic. Nope, this is a story about a kid who has extraordinary powers. “Midnight Special” is an unusual film by director Jeff Nichols; however, along with the strange aspects it also comes with a significant amount of heart and sincerity that makes it completely affective. Nichols has done this before: he is the director of “Mud” and the exceptional “Take Shelter”, so it’s no surprise that the material here is elevated because of the director’s unique skill and touch with storytelling.
The film begins with two men, Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucus (Joel Edgerton), watching a report on the news about a kidnapping, a crime that has Roy’s face plastered on the screen as the dangerous suspect. Also with the two men is Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a young boy who loves reading comic books using a flashlight and is most always wearing swimming goggles. On the run through Texas, the two men and Alton are trying to reach a special location, a journey that is impeded at every opportunity. Alton has a special gift, an ability that people want to either exploit, research, or, in the case of Roy and Lucas, protect.
The story here will be nothing new to film fans. The basic structure of the story and style of the film is one that has been reflected in science fiction films of 80s. Think “Firestarter” or “Starman” without all the extravagance. Instead, “Midnight Special” meticulously and patiently develops the story, building the relationships between the characters and letting young Alton slowly become cognizant of his gifts and why it is guiding him. The mood is also an important quality here; it is artfully accomplished in a way that keeps the viewer consistently guessing about their presumptions. Nichols is subtle about the implications of Alton’s gift, purposefully leaving explanations vague up to a specific point in the film. Unfortunately, it’s at this moment that the film feels a little too big for the concept it has quietly and delicately hinted at. The change doesn’t hurt the film but instead makes the decision feel too deliberate, so much that it feels somewhat forced. Still, this is small criticism; it would not surprise me if some viewers welcomed the change because of the film's measured pacing. Some may describe “Midnight Special” as a “slow burn” kind of film; rest assured this is a sentiment meant in the best possible way.
Part of the attraction here comes because of the exceptional performances. I have said it before, Michael Shannon is the best thing in about everything that he does. Shannon has been in every film that Nichols has made and the results of this consistency can be seen in the performance. Shannon has an intensity throughout the film that is kept restrained, a mixture of confusion, frustration, disappointment, and love that is never completely unleashed but is still seen on the actor’s face. Joel Edgerton plays a state trooper helping his best friend; regardless of whether or not he understands what is going on, he still believes. Edgerton is good throughout, offering a different kind of emotional connection with Alton. Adam Driver, interesting to watch here, also makes an appearance as an NSA advisor; he develops a unique relationship with Alton that provides the most information about the gifts possessed by the young boy.
Everything and everyone revolves around Alton. Nichols understands this and consistently utilizes Alton to craft surprising narrative moments especially when it comes to the characters that interact with him. Everyone has a different motivation that is reflected when they interact with the young boy. It’s an exceptional quality that helps “Midnight Special” tell an intriguing and calculated science fiction character drama.