Monday, April 18, 2016

Midnight Special (2016)

Review #1,289






THE SCOOP
Director:  Jeff Nichols
Cast:  Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher
Plot:  A father and son go on the run, pursued by the government and a cult drawn to the child's special powers.

Genre:  Drama / Sci-Fi / Thriller
Awards:  Nom. for Golden Bear (Berlin).
Runtime:  112min
Rating:  PG for some violence and action.
Distributor:  Warner Bros.

IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
Jeff Nichols has been riding on his own modest if remarkable American indie filmmaking wave for close to a decade, with films such as Shotgun Stories (2007), Take Shelter (2011) and Mud (2012).  In his fourth feature Midnight Special, one of the more strikingly low-key sci-fi films of the last five years, Nichols envisions the genre in American suburbia, casting the spotlight on a setting that is traditionally home to crime mysteries or encounters of the strange kind. 

Over the decades, films such as Prisoners (2013), Blue Velvet (1986) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) have amplified the setting of the suburbs into a space marked by fear and anxiety.  In Midnight Special, Nichols tries to achieve something similar, showing confidence in his own written material.

From the prologue leading up to the flashing of the movie title, Nichols shows us that same confidence in his craft as well.  The first five minutes effectively sets the tone of the picture through music and staging – it is going to be a chase movie and it is going to be mysterious. 

Alton Meyer is a boy who wears goggles to protect his eyes from direct sunlight.  Well, you can say that he has powers far beyond our comprehension, and instances of his seemingly incontrollable powers are seen throughout the film.  They can be shocking, devastating or pretty awesome, depending on the scenario.  His biological father, played by the superb Michael Shannon (also in Nichols’ previous three films), attempts to save him from being captured by the authorities, and a faction of a religious cult.

Apart from its sci-fi intrigue, Midnight Special is also about our collective frenzy towards what we deem as alien.  Through different eyes, Alton is a weapon, a saviour, or a son.  We have all-round excellent performances by Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, and of course, Jaeden Lieberher (who plays Alton), who made his feature debut in the Bill Murray comedy St. Vincent (2014).

Midnight Special suffers slightly in its final act.  Its visual and conceptual ambition, while pleasant and at times breathtaking, sees the film's sense of mystery and uncertainty dissipate, succumbing to the lure of the spectacular money shot. 

Still, Nichols just manages to hold on to the emotional and relational quotients that he has successfully developed through the picture – the father-son dynamic and the fierce paternal instincts of Shannon’s character that helped guide Alton in his bid to fulfill his purpose against all odds.  There's also the wonderful John Carpenter-esque score by David Wingo to savour.

Verdict:  Straddles between the intrigue of a sci-fi mystery and an effective chase movie, Nichols’ fourth feature is pleasantly ambitious to a fault.

GRADE: B+






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