Midnight Special

Midnight Special (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Midnight Special,” written and directed by Jeff Nichols, shares one important similarity with great science-fiction feature films of the past: treating its characters as people with specific motivations—eschewing the black-and-white concept of good versus evil altogether—and allowing the conflict to churn and rise from decisions made by flawed but determined men and women. Such is one of the main anchors of this most mysterious and curious picture, carefully modulated in feeling, thought, and action every step of the way.

The government is convinced an eight-year-old boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher—excellent here as he was in Bob Nelson’s effective comedy-drama “The Confirmation”) is a dangerous weapon while a religious group, possibly a cult, believes he is their savior. Both groups are in pursuit of the boy while his father (Michael Shannon) and a state trooper (Joel Edgerton) do whatever is necessary—even murder whomever gets in the way—to get him to a specific location and time so that he can be safe. Meanwhile, an NSA agent named Sevier (Adam Driver) starts to piece together information that points to where Alton is heading.

The picture practices restraint in execution and performance. We discover Alton’s abilities in small doses. Initially, we start to wonder what he is. Over time, however, we consider what he is ultimately capable of. Because Nichols’ screenplay avoids demonizing government officials, there is a small part of us that wonders perhaps their fears are not mere trivialities. It plays upon the idea that we tend to default fearing what we don’t know.

In addition, as we learn about the boy’s powers, special and visual effects never become the point. When they are utilized, they usually inspire horror or a sense of wonder. It is often unpredictable which side of the coin we might encounter next. Oftentimes it is a mix of both—which is exciting.

Shannon plays the father as a man who is afraid to lose his son but at the same time one who must exude a type of strength, a constant awareness what must be done ultimately in order to spare the boy from harm. Roy is a man of few words and Shannon has a great talent of communicating plenty with silence by using only his eyes and the tightness of his jaw and mouth. One of the most touching scenes involves Alton assuring his father that there is no need to worry about him any longer. It emits special resonance because it is the son’s way of recognizing his father’s sacrifice without relying on an obvious or expected exchange.

To reveal more about the film is to perform a disservice. “Midnight Special” is a chase picture but one that feels personal despite the magic we encounter in its universe. Too many movies tend to want the audience to sit back and enjoy the ride. This film is quite proud to do the opposite: it dares us to lean in, to question, to consider motivations of the characters depending on which party they represent, and to wonder how we might respond if our ordinary lives crossed paths with magnificence. Would we wish to keep it for ourselves, share it, or set it free?

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