Sunday, June 26, 2016

Review: "Midnight Special"

Director: Jeff Nichols
Runtime: 120 minutes

Fire may rain from the sky in a critical scene of Midnight Special, but make no mistake: this is no showboating blockbuster. Arkansas-born director Jeff Nichols' (Take Shelter) fourth feature certainly has brushes with the epic and the supernatural. Yet the heart of Midnight Special is a delicate, somber study of parents protecting children against the unknown. 

In the case of Midnight Special, however, it might be the adults who need protection. 8 year-old Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) may be frail looking, but his otherworldly abilities suggest that he has capabilities far beyond any weapon. And yet, as we learn from various characters, Alton's abilities may not do much good against the ominous date of March 6th (deciphered from the boy's fits of speaking in tongues and code). 

When it comes to obvious answers, however, Nichols mostly withholds. Despite its lack of overt thrills, Midnight Special's plot is more or less a chase film, with Alton being taken somewhere by his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and family friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). On their tale are two wildly different groups: the US government, who believe Alton may have somehow tapped into classified intelligence, and the cult where the boy was raised.

As in Take Shelter and Mud, the plot hardly rushes by, with momentary bursts of violence cropping a handful of times over 110 minutes. Still quite early in his career, Nichols' weakness as a director comes down to occasionally letting his slow-burn pace become plodding. Thankfully, Midnight Special represents a step in the right direction after the bloated meandering of Mud, even though it does drag out some scenes in the final act (a few too many reaction shots of people staring just a little too long).

But even when Nichols stumbles, he at least has the benefit of working with a much stronger foundation than his previous film. There's a lack of theatricality to the performances from the ensemble (which includes Adam Driver and Kirsten Dunst), but the main roles all blossom as the story progresses. Shannon previously played a distressed parent for Nichols in Take Shelter, but the roles are quite different. Shannon's Roy is tough, grounded, and compassionate, even when his devotion to Alton leads to questionable decisions (exhibit A: telling Lucas to shoot a state trooper because they can't afford to be slowed down). Edgerton's character begins as something of a convenience, but gradually reveals his own layers. 

Dunst, who doesn't arrive until much later, is similarly excellent as Alton's mother. Though she left the cult early, Dunst's Sarah dresses and styles herself like one of its members, suggesting the group's lasting impact. You get the feeling that Sarah could slip back into her old ways (whatever those may have been; the cult's practices and rituals are left vague). It's an odd balancing act, especially given the lack of exposition to answer big questions, but Dunst (coming off a revelatory performance on TV's Fargo) plays it perfectly. Lieberher, despite mostly existing in the frame as a prop, does quite well when his character is called upon. 

Yet so much of Midnight Special is quiet, brooding set up (aided by David Wingo's excellent music) that the climactic revelation can't help but come off as a bit of a let down. After teasing the audience (and the characters) with what might happen on March 6, Nichols overcorrects when it's time to finally pull back the curtain. It's hardly a disastrous narrative choice, but suffice it to say the journey, and not the destination, is what makes Special, well...special.

Grade: B+

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