Release Date: March 18th, 2016 (US); April 8th, 2016 (UK)
Genre: Adventure; Drama; Science fiction
Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Kirsten Dunst
The opening shot of Midnight Special shows a motel door peephole. The peephole offers those inside the motel room the ability to spy on any external goings-on, and is in fact the only means to such an end: each of the room’s windows have been dressed in cardboard by occupants wary, perhaps, of the instability of conventional curtains. One of the room’s occupants, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), has even donned enormous orange headphones and a pair of goggles, ears and eyes shielded from something, or maybe someone. It is a brilliant introduction to this patient, mysterious world created by Jeff Nichols, without doubt one of the most exciting up-and-coming filmmakers working today.
A number of forces are after Alton for a number of reasons: the FBI, for fear of his invasive abilities, that the child can undercut complicated governmental systems albeit without malice, and a Texas cult corrupted by the promise of an upcoming day of reckoning. Adam Driver represents the former as Paul Sevier, a compassionate analyst of sorts, and ranch leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) the latter. See, Alton possesses a variety of characteristics not written into the laws of physics. His eyes shoot blinding beams of light and his mind works prophetically, both of which make him valuable. But nobody values him more than his father Roy (Michael Shannon) who, with the assistance of friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), sets out to shield Alton from harm.
Moral complexities are at large early on. Roy and Lucas’ motives aren’t initially clear therefore Shannon and Edgerton must convey a sense of righteousness or otherwise. As they leave their motel room with Alton, we cut to a suspicious receptionist. Shortly thereafter, the pair endure a nasty collision on the road and have a run-in with a state trooper which ends when the latter is shot. It’s not exactly a heroic introduction, but subtle nuances get us onside: Shannon’s paternal vibe towards his son and Alton’s reciprocal nature; Edgerton’s considered demeanour and his character’s need to protect any innocent bystanders (shooting not to kill the trooper, for instance).
The film is also Spielbergian in many ways, from its science fiction touch to how it places youth on a pedestal. You first notice the similarities in a dusk horizon shot, where the various silhouettes of imposing military trucks can be seen advancing along a shadowy road, the background an orange-tinted sky. A general nighttime vibe exists throughout the piece, partially because the screenplay requires it, but also because darkness funds an overarching sense of uncertainty and mystique. Visual flair is mostly restrained, though the film does let loose on two occasions with incredible results — especially incredible given the comparatively meagre $18 million budget.
Its celebration of youthful imagination is another trope from Spielberg’s wheelhouse, enacted generally across the piece but also more intimately when we see Alton reading a Human Torch comic. “Reading’s reading,” Lucas claims, to which Roy glumly replies, “He needs to know what’s real”. Lucas has been won over not just by Alton’s abilities but also his humanness. Roy, while evidently full of love for his son, is more strict when it comes to completing the task; that is, getting Alton to where he needs to be. Perhaps this early in proceedings Roy is unwilling to fully accept the consequences of doing so, which only adds further heft to his journey.
But he does have faith. Religion, the inevitability of one’s beliefs, the cultish haranguing instigated by an isolated community — these are all explored in Midnight Special. Calvin’s ranch carries significant pull, even to those who have left. “Do you miss it?” Roy asks former member Elden (David Jensen), and you can bet he does. We don’t really know anything about those on the ranch, nor those who have escaped, which includes Roy and his wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). Their backstories might have benefited from some filling in, though you have to commend Nichols for his consistency in letting the audience make up their own minds. And there certainly isn’t a total information blackout. Rather, this feels like a well-crafted piece, where each event and scene and conversation carries meaning.
It is always easy to compare a filmmaker’s current work to his/her previous efforts, though such a comparison makes sense here. In many ways, Nichols has taken the most appetising ingredients from both Take Shelter and Mud and moulded them into a sci-fi base: the former’s apocalyptic vision and air of encroaching trouble tags with the latter’s unflashy, youngster-imbued agenda. Alton is the physical manifestation of both elements, a dangerous otherworldly presence to some, yet to others simply a child searching for answers. Television news reels spew out stories on crippling addiction while honchos in suits decry the possibility of nuclear decimation, paranoid and afraid of change even if it is for the better.
Despite being set in contemporary times, the film has an undeniable retro quality similar to that purveyed in Super 8 (though clearly J.J. Abrams’ movie is set in a period that matches its retro-scape). David Wingo’s oscillating, spacey score somewhat soothes our ears as it recalls Alton’s futuristic attributes. It tends to play over scenes involving Alton and never jars, instead shining a positive light on what the boy could represent — that aforementioned change for the better — as well as his family’s motives. At times the music also reminded me of Kristin Øhrn Dyrud’s work in Coherence, a small sci-fi thriller bred from a similar pool of cagey mystery.
For those of you who thought Tomorrowland: A World Beyond lacked concrete storytelling or a consistent strain of intrigue, there’s every chance Midnight Special is film you have been looking for. While Nichols’ outing doesn’t flourish through splendour, it does keep the viewer engrossed for the duration. You have to be; various ideas are floated around — including concepts I haven’t touched upon here, such as undemocratic government surveillance — and it is often up to us to make our own moral judgement. Midnight Special is as much an on-the-road drama as it is any other genre, but it’s also very effective sci-fi. The special stuff, almost.
Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.