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Midnight Special

D: Jeff Nichols / 112m

Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Sam Shepard, Paul Sparks, David Jensen

It’s only taken writer/director Jeff Nichols four movies to become a movie maker whose projects carry an enormous weight of expectation. First there was Shotgun Stories (2007), then there was Take Shelter (2011). He followed that up with Mud (2012), and now he brings us Midnight Special, a tale about an eight year old boy who may be an alien, or an emissary from God, or something else completely. It’s a measure of Nichols’ success that he’s taken what could have been an awkward, unconvincing story – in lesser hands – and made it into an articulate, gripping tale that’s also exciting and thought-provoking.

The movie begins with the police searching for a missing child called Alton Meyer (Lieberher). He’s been abducted from a religious compound known as the Ranch. It’s head, Alton’s adoptive father, Calvin Meyer (Shepard), wants him back, and within the next four days. But Alton – who has to wear blue goggles during daylight hours – has been abducted by his real father, Roy Tomlin (Shannon), and he, along with his friend, Lucas (Edgerton), are trying to keep Alton safe and also get him to a certain place in four days’ time. There, something momentous will happen, but neither Roy nor Calvin Meyer knows what it is; and at this point, Alton doesn’t know either.

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The FBI, and the NSA – in the form of agent Paul Sevier (Driver) – are also trying to find Alton, as they have become aware that he has been including coded intelligence in the sermons he’s written for Meyer. But Alton has other gifts, and one in particular, connected to his sight. When Ray decides to stop off at an old Ranch member’s home, that particular gift almost causes the house to shake apart. From there, the trio drive to the home of Alton’s mother, Sarah (Dunst), but not before an incident at a gas station reveals that Alton’s heat signature is similar to that of a nuclear bomb. Now a foursome, they travel on to the location that Alton must reach, however, they’re unaware that two members of the Ranch, Doak (Camp) and Levi (Haze), are tracking them with the intention of kidnapping Alton and returning him to the Ranch.

Before they are able to, Alton, who has been getting sicker and sicker, and has to avoid direct sunlight, tells Roy that he can no longer continue to keep hidden from the sun. Roy exposes Alton to a sunrise, and it has an extraordinary effect: he can now walk about unaffected in daylight, and knows exactly what he needs to do and why he needs to be in a certain place at a certain date and time. As he tells Roy: he doesn’t belong here.

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Whether or not Alton makes it to his rendezvous is, ultimately, neither here nor there. What’s important is the journey he makes getting there, and the way in which he and his parents, and Lucas, make it there. One of the strengths of Nichols’ impressive and layered screenplay is the way in which Roy’s parental determination to not let anything stop him from getting Alton to his rendezvous, sometimes presents itself as unfeeling and harsh. When he and Lucas encounter a state trooper, Roy is unequivocal: he tells Lucas to shoot him. Roy doesn’t care about anyone else, only Alton, and his zeal and willingness to put moral certitude aside makes him one of recent cinema’s more interesting and intriguing characters. Shannon is perfect for the role, morally absent when he needs to be, but a committed, loving father as well, and fully able to show these two sides of Roy’s character without any sense that he’s a Jekyll and Hyde personality and able to call on either side when necessary.

What’s also important is that Roy believes in Alton, albeit in a different way from Calvin (he and his followers believe that Alton’s rendezvous is also the time when they will all be judged by God). He believes in his son, wholeheartedly, and even if what he knows is incredibly far-fetched. If it wasn’t for the light that can stream from Alton’s eyes when he’s exposed to sunlight, the viewer would be hard pressed to believe in the same way as Roy does. Nichols doesn’t keep the viewer in the dark for long (no pun intended), and any doubts are dispelled when Elden (Jensen), the ex-Ranch member has to have “another look”. From then on, Alton’s gifts/abilities/powers are assimilated into the narrative in a way that both explores them and allows them to drive events forward. As the otherworldly Alton, Lieberher does a fantastic job of balancing his closeted childhood with his increasing awareness of the skills he really possesses (he reads a lot of comic books and at one point asks about Kryptonite as if it were real).

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Nichols orchestrates all this with a tremendous amount of flair, even as he keeps a tight rein on the more overt sci-fi elements of his screenplay. The subplot involving the Ranch members sometimes comes across as more of an afterthought, or late addition to the script, while the inclusion of Sarah doesn’t give Dunst much more to do than look concerned and hesitant. And there’s one very important question that Nichols leaves right until the very final shot to explain (in many respects it’s the most important question). But with such a high level of confidence on display, Nichols can be forgiven a couple of narrative faux pas, and his handling of the action sequences is bracing and not at all derivative (a major feat in itself). The whole thing is beautifully shot by Nichols’ regular DoP Adam Stone, and there’s an insidious, disorientating score courtesy of another Nichols’ regular, David Wingo.

Rating: 8/10 – Nichols continues his run of impressive features with a movie that asks what it is to be human, and comes up with some unexpected answers in the process; Midnight Special is an intelligent, original, and supremely well executed sci-fi drama, as well as a fantastic example of what can be done with a well constructed script, a more than willing cast, inspired direction, and all on a modest budget.

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