Sunday, April 3, 2016

"Midnight Special"

 4.5 / 5 

All around the edges of Midnight Special are hints of two previous movies, Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and John Carpenter's Starman, but writer-director Jeff Nichols does much more than pay homage to two of the great aliens-come-to-Earth movies, he uses their essence to create a film so brazen and moody that even its shortcomings feel like strengths.

From Close Encounters comes an insistent obsession with decoding messages received from an otherworldly source, and from Starman comes a road trip through America with a passenger whose mysteries and powers are revealed slowly -- so slowly, in this case, that audiences are likely to be split between whether Midnight Special is mesmerizing or just plain confounding.  This isn't a movie for the impatient, which manifests itself in an odd way: It's a dreamy, languid cross-country chase.

But just when its hypnotic pace and quiet tone threaten to overwhelm it, Midnight Special blazes with  scenes of stunning intensity, exploding out of nowhere, then settling back in to its rhythm.  While watching Midnight Special, I was thrown back into my seat with a near-physical force by its unexpected surprises.

The movie begins with the same sense of paranoid urgency that flowed throughout Nichols' Take Shelter, which also starred Michael Shannon, who here plays Roy Tomlin, who has absconded with his son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), and is holed up in a cheap motel room with heavily armed Lucas (Joel Edgerton).  They've triggered an Amber Alert, but they're on the run from more than the police -- they've taken the boy from a Central Texas religious cult, who believe that Alton is their messiah, who will save them from a soon-to-arrive judgment day.

The thing is, the FBI might actually believe what the cult is saying.  There's something special about Alton, who wears swimming goggles and is only awake at night.  He sleeps all day, his head surrounded by giant noise-blocking earphones.  Alton has delivered what the cult interprets as religious messages, but government officials like Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) know to be highly encrypted, top-secret data intercepted from satellites.

What does the boy know and how does he know it?  Just as that mystery deepens, a new and bigger one shoots forth as beams of light from the kid's eyes.  It's a bewildering scene, and Midnight Special is just getting started with its wild visions.

Interestingly, Midnight Special was produced and released by Warner Bros., a studio lately known for the ways it has sought to make its DC Comics division into a movie powerhouse like Marvel by creating intricately interlocking films that expand the "franchise."  Midnight Special would appear, at least on the surface, to have absolutely nothing in common with a $200 million superhero movie -- except that, as its story and its revelations linger, it's clear that Nichols has designed and created a world as carefully constructed and elaborately conceived as those mega-budget blockbusters.

Sam Shepherd's cult leader, for instance, appears for only a few minutes of screen time, but he has built an entire religion based on the messages received by Alton, and the film only briefly explores a bit of it, leaving tantalizing gaps in the story.  Why has the boy developed such a fervent following?  What is it that the cult believes will happen on March 6, the appointed day of doom?

Whatever it is, Driver's field agent Sevier believes there's at least something to it, and he leads the government effort to find the boy -- which only intensifies when, during another one of those out-of-nowhere moments that shock and awe, Alton manages to pull a weather satellite out of orbit and bring it crashing down to earth.

Yet even as Alton grows more dangerous, and even as the powers he has seem to sap more energy and life from him, Roy refuses to keep Alton going to the very end, to March 6 -- when no one, not even Alton, knows what may take place.  Along the way, they're joined by Alton's birth mother (Kirsten Dunst), who is equally sure that no matter what happens to the world on March 6, something clearly is going to happen to Alton.

Estranged for years, now Roy and Sarah must support each other as they run from both the police and from the brutal kidnappers that the cult has sent to find and retrieve the boy.

If it sounds like a high-pitched chase movie, what makes Midnight Special so very unusual is the way it maintains its calmly urgent tone of heightened awareness throughout.  Nichols refuses to play by standard movie tropes, and even the one big car chase -- and it's a doozy -- tosses convention aside and tries some new tricks that ratchet up the tension even further.  The biggest strength of Midnight Special is that just when you think you have figure out its next move, you haven't.

Nichols has constructed his elaborate stories with layers upon layers of meaning, subtext and even plot itself, giving us glimpses at back stories (what is the FBI trying to do? Why is the government involved?  How is the story being reported by the news?) that show just how rich and complex it is.  There is something happening at every level in Midnight Special, not the least of which is the level that explores concepts of religious belief and religious faith.

Because once Alton reveals to himself and to his stunned elders exactly what and who he is, Midnight Special also adds in some fascinating commentary on mainstream religion, far from simply the cult-like views held by the compound from where Alton was abducted.

And in its final 20 minutes, just as Nichols bravely and unexpectedly did in Take Shelter, Midnight Special "goes there."  But where there is and what happens there is certainly up for debate.  I found it one of the most provocative, fascinating endings in a long time, open to so many interpretations, suffused with so many meanings, that the last 10 minutes of Midnight Special -- and what it might be trying to reveal  about our political and religious leanings here in these United States -- set it apart from anything else you're likely to see this year,

Midnight Special begins small, three guys in a hotel room, and ends up shockingly big, but its scope and ambition aren't its only surprises.  Midnight Special doesn't just earn and deserve comparisons to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Starman.  It belongs in the same league as them.  It's that good.

Viewed April 2, 2015 -- ArcLight Hollywood


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