Monday, March 28, 2016

Midnight Special (***)

Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols


Midnight Special is Jeff Nichols' fourth feature. To this point, all of his films are deconstructions of the American South; part commentary, part appreciation. He dissects the region's virtues and prejudices, its insanities and its mythologies. They also all star Michael Shannon. They have these things in common, but still have their own pulsating independence from one another. Take Shelter is a shattering tale about a man's mental disintegration, a psychological thriller with biblical allusions and an alarming sense of empathy uncommon in that kind of story. Mud was a film shoved together in the public mind as part of 2013's McConnaissance, but it was actually a stunning Southern Gothic with an achingly sweet center - it managed to recall both Harper Lee and Flannery O'Connor. Midnight Special is his most confounding film yet, and its his first venture into science fiction. Once again, Michael Shannon is on board. Shannon is such a strong screen presence - his ability to translate pain and torment with such effortlessness is matched by only few others in Hollywood. His fragmented film persona works perfectly with Nichols' tales of misplacement, of the South's perpetual discomfort with a rapidly modernizing world. Born in Arkansas, Nichols' has a warmth for this place and these people, and it shows in his films. He understands their behaviors and superstitions, and his ability to mold them into these wonderfully unique films is what makes him one of the most fascinating young filmmakers out there. Midnight Special tackles some familiar themes: religion, displacement, a creeping fear of outside threats and basic otherness. Nichols is experimenting with more complicated plot elements here, but at its heart, Midnight Special's story is simple. How far will a father go to protect his child?

Shannon plays Roy, a Texan who has fled a religious cult with his son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who possesses otherworldly powers. Along for the ride is state trooper Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a childhood friend of Roy's who is wholly convinced by Alton's power. The two men and Alton are being chased by multiple federal agencies after Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) - the cult's loquacious leader - puts out an Amber Alert. The FBI and the NSA become interested in Calvin when they learn that his sermons contain codes that reveal sensitive government information - information, Calvin says, he was given by Alton during fits of speaking in foreign, sometimes unknown, languages. NSA agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) presses Calvin and other members of the religious group on how they believe Alton attained this information. They all respond the same: Alton is a higher being who will be their savior when the judgment comes the Friday of that week. Alton, Roy and Lucas head East, watching their tracks trying to avoid the several agencies looking to get them. Their motel television plays the news and Roy's face sits on the screen as an abductor. Having grown tired of Calvin's exploitation of Alton's powers, Roy hopes to get his son to a specific spot on that fateful Friday in hopes that a celestial event may occur. The government isn't the only body looking to stop them. Calvin also sends his own man, Doak (Bill Camp), to retrieve Alton and bring him back in time for the reckoning. Doak is supported by a second man and several automatic weapons. As Roy and Lucas weave in and out of backroads and highways, they dodge potential threats as well as manage Alton's diminishing health and uncontrollable powers. Alton shoots light from his eyes, gives people visions of an alternate reality, and even has the power to pull satellites from the sky and send them crashing to Earth. His powers, misconstrued as nefarious by government agents, are mostly a mystery to Roy who hopes to get his son to a place where he can live his life in peace.

Alton's mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), arrives halfway through the film. Sarah is another former member of Calvin's cult, who abandoned the church once Calvin's exploitation of Alton began. The crimes or non-crimes of Calvin and his following are never explicitly explained - we're led to assume that they're extremists and circumspect, especially when we're privy to Doak's tracking methods. When we meet Sarah, she hasn't seen her son in years, but with the arrival of Alton and Roy, she has become whole again. As Alton's health worsens, Lucas begins to beg for a doctor, but the parents know that the only way to help their son is to get him to that predestined spot. How the parents are aware of Alton's destiny, as well as how two seemingly mortal people from Texas are able to birth a celestial being, are never sufficiently explained. There's a lot in Nichols' screenplay that requires you to both suspend disbelief and suspend the requirement for logic and basic plot development. Nichols can conceive the supernatural conflicts of his story, but the film doesn't seem to have the patience to fully explain them. Often I found myself openly wondering what exactly was happening. It doesn't help that the film's screenplay withholds much information throughout until the last possible moments. The motivations for characters like Sevier or Lucas and even sometimes Roy feel a bit cloudy for a good percentage of the story. The subplot involving Doak gives the movie a much needed sinister suspense, helped greatly by a strong supporting performance from veteran actor Bill Camp, but that plot line concludes abruptly and disappointingly. It's one of many of Midnight Special's half-cooked concepts that surround what is overall a very gripping tale.

What does work in Midnight Special comes from the performances and Nichols' strong sense of setting. This is a notch below the director's last two films, but it is obviously his grandest production. He is one of those filmmakers that is in the tricky position of being worthy of studio investment, but who will likely not repay that investment with a commercial product. His style is refined, but not sleek; it's more dependent on the flow of the editing than it is on fierce cinematography. Nichols isn't as cinematic as his peers J.C. Chandor and Ryan Coogler, but like Coogler, his scripts are infused with a personal touch and he can be prone to sentimentality. But there's no other young filmmaker right now whose oeuvre seems so clear and confident. Midnight Special doesn't have the heavy sense of dread from Take Shelter nor does it possess the ethereal mythos of Mud. It seems like a film uncomfortable with its resources. Luckily he still has a strong sense of vulnerable male characters and the performances from Shannon and Edgerton are both carefully developed, playing two sides of a paternal coin. Alton is an incredibly difficult part to play, but Jaeden Lieberher (of St. Vincent fame) is doing good work here. The trio have good chemistry together, and their relationship infuses a Spielbergian sense of family rescue into the already multi-pronged thematic approach to Nichols' script. The father-son aspect is probably the film's strongest point, and Nichols has already commented on how his recent fatherhood influenced his film. Casting Shannon in the more desperate role was a smart choice, and one that likens the film to a more cynical Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This film does feel like a bit of a crossroads for Nichols, whether he will continue on with his idiosyncratic tales of lost Southern souls or become the more traditional filmmaker Midnight Special suggests. Nichols already has another film planned for later this year, so we will figure out which way he ends up going, but this is an artist too intelligent, I feel, to be subdued into something mediocre.

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