Midnight Special: Nichols and Shannon Do Creepy Spielberg

midnight special

Midnight Special
Directed by Jeff Nichols
Opens March 18

Midnight Special begins so gloriously in medias res that it’s easy to imagine, watching the rest of the movie, the filmmakers becoming addicted to creating that sensation. Of course, most movies are written out beforehand, and shot out of order, and I don’t actually think writer/director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter; Mud) spent the rest of Midnight Special trying to recapture the glory of its opening. I’m a little worried, though, that I did.

It’s not a crackerjack opening scene, necessarily, just an immediate, mysterious premise: A man with pure determination in his eyes (Michael Shannon, naturally) and his buddy (Joel Edgerton) grab a kid called Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) and speed away down a highway at night. Details accumulate and raise more questions: The man is Alton’s father, but Alton was not necessarily in his custody. The man and his buddy are on the news, reported as kidnappers. Alton was being kept within some kind of cult-like organization called the Ranch. And sometimes, Alton’s eyes begin to glow with a blinding light.

He’s a walking lens flare, basically, appropriate for a movie that often touches early 80s pop filmmaking, including early Spielberg (the movie even briefly looks like it may be set in the past, thanks to an old CRT-style TV at a hotel and some ill-fitting suits, but later appearances from flatscreens suggest it may be set outside of a particular period, David Robert Mitchell style). Given that influence, it’s less slow-building than previous Nichols pictures—and as if to compensate, Nichols lets backstory, and also currentstory, slow to a trickle even as the movie keeps propelling itself forward. Shannon and Edgerton are taking Alton some unspecified place they believe he needs to go, for reasons mostly unexplained. They stop off to see Alton’s mother (Kirsten Dunst), who is no longer with his father, for reasons mostly unexplained. The Ranch takes Alton for a prophet, for reasons guessable but unexplained. The government is tracking Alton, for reasons that do not need to be explained, but do need to be interesting.

Actually, the obligatory pursuing government and scientists offers one of the movie’s best surprises: Adam Driver, working better than you might think as a scientist who winds up in the thick of the action. He’s part of a uniformly strong cast: Shannon, terrifying at being terrified in Take Shelter, again plays the guy with the crazy faith that something impossible may be true—only because it’s his son, it doesn’t come off as especially crazy. It’s parental instinct (and a tribute to Shannon’s range as an actor). Dunst brings her later-career world-weariness to what could have been a stock worried-mom role.

Lieberher is good too, I guess, but it’s hard to tell, because frankly, Alton is kind of a cipher—or maybe he’s a MacGuffin. His powers don’t need to be spelled out—one reason the movie takes off so quickly and beguilingly is the lack of mythological baggage—but in scene after scene, characters make oblique reference to things they seem to know, and aren’t always shared with anyone in the audience. I think this might be intended to distill characters’ motivations into pure emotion, and while the actors are certainly strong enough to pull this off, Nichols, whose Mud was simultaneously so tender and tough, winds up turning those motivations into abstractions: of the story at hand, and of the parenting metaphor that seems to be on his mind. The obliqueness becomes a distancing tic, and Nichols isn’t enough of a stylist to completely get away with it. He captures striking images ranging from the simple, like a bank of payphones ringing in the dark, to more ornate stuff that looks of a piece with Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, but they don’t flow together with that effortless-seeming Spielbergian brilliance. It will be unfashionable to think so, I’m sure, but that homage fabulist J.J. Abrams did this routine better in Super 8. Midnight Special is a pretty good film; its best moments thrum with mystery. In the end, it’s just hard to feel transported by a puzzle-box that doesn’t want anyone opening it up.

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