Film of the week: Midnight Special

Star boy: Jeff Nichols puts a spare, plaintive mark on this 80s-style chase movie-scifi hybrid.

Kate Stables
Updated:

from our May 2016 issue

Midnight Special (2016)

Spoiler alert: this review reveals a plot twist.

Oedipal antagonism doesn’t seem to be a problem for Hollywood filmmakers these days – not for J.J. Abrams, whose Spielbergian Super 8 and 70s-nostalgic Star Wars: The Force Awakens draw heavily on the cinematic enthusiasms of his youth; and not for Jeff Nichols, whose lean, earnest chase movie is a fond and open tribute to the 80s sci-fi of Carpenter and Spielberg. But for Nichols – a filmmaker with a style very much his own, one that infuses genre with down-home naturalism and a taciturn emotional intensity – homage involves a rigorous and personal reimagining of his boyhood cinema. As he told Indiewire: “They can’t just be those films – those films have been made.”

Midnight Special’s cross-state fugitive dash to get an alien child to a mysterious destination is obviously modelled on Carpenter’s 1984 film Starman (right down to the lens flares), but it has a slow-drip tension and ambiguity that are altogether new. Refusing to explain what has stung Roy (Michael Shannon, even more intense than usual) into snatching eight-year-old prophet Alton from a Texas cult, Midnight Special opens with an ominous FBI raid on the Ranch, the cult’s home. The slow extraction of information from fervent, Alton-obsessed zealots and arrogant cult leader Meyer suggests a conspiracy thriller. But the desperate chase across the South that follows also blends the small-town everyday with otherworldly bursts of sci-fi eruption, in a fashion distinctly familiar from Starman and E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial (1982). Who is Adam Driver’s NSA analyst, intently deciphering Alton’s number prophecies as top-secret security coordinates, but another incarnation of Peter Coyote’s ‘man with the keys’ in E.T.?

You’ll look in vain, however, for Spielbergian sentimentality or Carpenter’s sweet road-trip romance. Nichols doesn’t do ‘feely’ movies; neither does he do humour, unless you count the gentle teasing of 2012’s Mud. Shannon has built a four-movie bond with him based on men of doomy truculence or stoic decency who rarely crack a smile. Nonetheless, Nichols’s films have powerful emotional impact, expressed here, as in Shotgun Stories (2007) and Take Shelter (2011), through a man’s love for his family. In Shannon’s understated but sharply focused performance, Roy (Alton’s biological father) emanates a fierce paternal protectiveness as he totes his weakening, photosensitive son towards his destiny. This emotional heft is key, since Nichols has swapped his usual thematic layering (Take Shelter is rich with metaphor about the shakiness of the environment and the economy, Mud with nostalgia for vanishing ways of life) for a more stripped-down feel.

Midnight Special (2016)

Chase films demand this kind of honed approach. Nichols is looking to expand his range as a director, and he concentrates heavily on the crosscut action between the fugitives, the FBI’s hi-tech search for a child they think is a weapon and the cult heavies who need their child prophet in order to survive the Judgement Day they see in his predictions. The switches between them are nicely taut. There’s a slamming shoot-and-snatch when Alton is grabbed from a motel, which sideswipes the unwary viewer. Caught up in maintaining momentum and ruthlessly shedding rich characters along the way, the film misses the chance to develop the pursuers as well as the pursued. If the rather less interesting con-and-kid fugitive movie A Perfect World (1993) could round out Clint Eastwood’s relentless lawman without losing speed, Nichols’s film could have achieved that too. Instead, only Driver’s wry Paul Sevier moves from being obsessed with Alton as a phenomenon to engaging with him as a child. Indeed, Nichols is so resistant to spelling things out, or retaining excess story baggage, that the narrative develops a kind of steely thinness. Pleasing enough in its own right, perhaps, but it makes the road to Alton’s alien ascension starker than it needs to be.

The actual roads, however, are quite another thing. Nichols, a native of Arkansas, makes the film’s Southern settings resonant. A sci-fi movie that prefers to skirt small towns rather than smash cities to pieces, Midnight Special finds a spare, unconventional beauty in its wide shots of dusty Texas roads, scrubby Louisiana fields and shabby tract houses. DP Adam Stone makes the night-driving sequences inky and atmospheric, and turns an aerial shot of highways into a stunning river of lights. Within this naturalistic landscape, the sudden SFX eruptions of Alton’s light-streaming eyes are startling, especially when combined with David Wingo’s pulsing score; like the boiling skies and flocks of birds that haunted Take Shelter, they are all the more unsettling in their everyday setting. Nichol’s knack for planting the otherworldly in the mundane emerges cannily, at the most unexpected points. The subterranean power unleashed by communion with Alton’s terrifying lighthouse stare batters a sleeping house like a piñata; a satellite rains down in a shower of melting lights and crashing metal over a gas station where he hears astral voices.

Midnight Special (2016)

Alton becomes less fascinating, though, as he changes from an enigma, protected from daylight and boredom by swimming goggles and superhero comics respectively, to a faintly Christ-as-a-child figure who leads his father into close encounters of the predictable kind with alien mushroom clouds. Watching him pop the locks of an army base with a blink, or flush the power of a sunrise through his veins, undermines the sense of jeopardy that makes Roy’s Herculean efforts to keep him safe so moving. Jaeden Lieberher plays him with a fragility that his deadpan turn in 2014’s St Vincent didn’t hint at, and a gravitas that matches Shannon’s own.

Truly touching, though, is Joel Edgerton’s toughly loyal Lucas, riding shotgun with father and son. Trembling before he puts a bullet in an inconvenient cop, or stung by helpless envy at the sight of Roy and Sarah (Alton’s mother) hugging their child, Edgerton draws the eye. His friendship with Roy, a mostly wordless ‘good ol’ boy’ union that includes crashing roadblocks, is another of the studies of masculinity that every Nichols movie includes. Sidelined by the supremacy of the father-son bond and introduced late into the mix, Kirsten Dunst’s low-key rendition of Sarah’s tentative mothering makes the best of a sketchy job.

Midnight Special (2016)

Having created his own moving and melancholy take on both 80s sci-fi and the government chase movie, Nichols returns to the traditional template late on. It’s a surprising and not entirely welcome turn, since the vast metallic city of light that bursts open above a Louisiana field to claim Alton feels as if it belongs in something far more generic. Wonder, the kind that Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) generated with its musical mother ship, eludes this shimmering rendezvous, despite the flickering Spielbergian figures that welcome Alton home.

Light has been the film’s governing motif, cutting through the night scenes as lens flares, a sunset splitting the rumbling ground around father and son, and unearthly rays pouring from Alton as both weapon and benediction. The action even divides deftly into night-time mystery and daytime revelations. Yet the film’s big moment fails to illuminate, in spite of the undeniable beauty of designer Alex McDowell’s glistening sky world. Truer to the film’s distinctive, allusive mood is a piercing last shot of the imprisoned Roy, chained and festooned with medical cables like a latter-day saint, drenching his gaze in the blazing sun. Like the convict in the folk song from which Midnight Special takes its name, he finds hope and salvation in a beam of light.

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