Review: Midnight Special

Having been renewed for a second season, Damon Lindelof and Tom Perotta decided to (or potentially were encouraged to) make some changes to their cult supernatural melodrama The Leftovers. One of the most notable was replacing Max Richter’s histrionic theme music with a sourced and overly chirpy 1990’s country song. Almost the polar opposite of what preceded it, Iris DeMent’s “Let The Mystery Be” was the sound of a sea change in the show, but it also worked as a message from the showrunners. The Leftovers is built around one defining mystery. Lindelof and Perotta have been vocal that the show’s central question will never be answered. It’s not about that. It’s about the emotional ramifications of the mystery.

That same song might just as easily work as theme music for Jeff Nichols’ fourth feature Midnight Special and for the same reason. Once again the immensely talented Nichols has created a drama of family in the heartland of America, but where previously elements of the fantastic only dappled the corners of the frame (in the perfectly judged Take Shelter and the picturesque Mud) here they take prominent centre stage. This is as overtly ‘sci-fi’ a film as Nichols has attempted thus far, and probably one of the purest we’ll see this year. Talking about it is going to take some careful navigation.

Events are already in motion when the film begins (and the film is filled with forward momentum). An 8-year-old boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) has been abducted from a compound in Texas by his birth father Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) and his accomplice Lucas (Joel Edgerton). They are on the run, with not just the FBI but also members of the compound’s zealous community hot on their heels. Roy has masterminded this seeming jailbreak in order to get Alton to a specific place by a specific date; something he holds more important than the lives of those who get in the way. Alton is not under duress; he wants to be taken. But where are they headed? And why? And why is it so important?

These questions surround the core of Midnight Special like petals cocooning the sweet pollen within. This is a risky thing for a film journalist to say, but I recommend reading as little as possible about this movie before seeing it. In fact, what are you doing right now? You’ve obviously disregarded my advice if you’re even reading this sentence. Or this one. There’s just no telling you is there? Honestly, if you’re not going to listen to my advice then why are you reading this in the first place?

Take Shelter is one of my favourite films of the decade so far, and Nichols has proven himself with a career featuring not a dud yet. In the main Midnight Special comfortably joins his streak of successes. Shannon (who has appeared in every one of his films) is as dependable as ever, though potentially at his most muted. Lieberher is a strong young presence as Alton. Elsewhere in the supporting cast Kirsten Dunst and Adam Driver do due diligence with the roles they’re given respectively. But if there’s a standout here it’s actually Joel Edgerton.

Edgerton’s Lucas is something of a quandary for a long time. Who is he? How did he get involved in this? What’s his motivation for risking everything for the sake of Alton and Roy? One gets the distinct impression that his part in this adventure is something of a leap of faith, and as such he assumes the role of the audience watching the movie. We’re very purposefully given little information up front. Nichols pieces out nuggets sparingly and carefully. Like Lucas we’re asked to take this ride on the proviso that everything will be worth it in the end.

So is it? Mostly, yes. Nichols goes for emotional beats and sustained tension over pyrotechnics and visual trickery, however when the film does veer into the spectacular it does so with a grounded sense of awe and gusto that genuinely propels the audience into the moment. A sequence at a filling station marks one such intense highlight. Toward the conclusion, when all is revealed, Nichols holds that sense of wonder and disbelief. He’s carried the viewer this far, and what could’ve gone either way manages to somehow land with a sense of emotional weight and truth. Forgive the vagueness of how this is described, but I really want to veer around spoilers as much as possible.

That includes talking about the film’s abundant influences. There are staples (classics even) from a former generation of filmmaking that race to mind when reflecting on the themes and tone of Nichols’ latest work, so much so that it makes Midnight Special feel like an homage to a certain brand of bygone cinema. To his credit, Nichols has crafted a film that will likely stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those he openly emulates here. If the film has a significant flaw, it is that once you can recognise these influences, they start to take away from the originality of the experience.

Yet, this is still Nichols’ film. It is marked indelibly with the sensibility that was there, fully formed, in his debut feature Shotgun Stories. Nichols has an incredible fondness for middle America and the so-called fly-over states. He sees a strange romanticism in long stretching highways, open land, corn fields and service stations. One of the simpler pleasures here is how it rekindles memories of what it feels like to be a passenger on a long car journey. The emptiness of roadside hotels. The weirdness of places that exist between other places; always the pit stop, never the destination.

More than anything, Midnight Special underscores the incredible connection between parents and their children. Roy is consumed with his mission to protect and aid Alton. It is all that he is. Where does such an all-encompassing sense of drive and dedication come from? How much love is there in a person for another? Approaching these questions invites sentimentalism, but Nichols holds his own, wise enough to ask but not answer. If you’re still reading, take his advice; let the mystery be.

Score: 3.5

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