Midnight Special (****) has a familiar shine

midnight-special-poster

Midnight Special – 2016

Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard

“…Where heading for the day of reckoning
I’m telling ya, it’s all building up to something
Something that can be repeated with fire…”

Pete Townshend – Give Blood

Jeff Nichols career has been a steady uphill climb until now. His simple approach with complex characters in more complex situations has been a recipe that no others in his field have come close to matching. Each of his first three films, Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud, have reached the classic status. This time out, he was given a budget to match his rising esteem in the business. What he did with it borders on great, but fails in the one aspect that seems irrelevant to his talent – special effects.

The story revolves around a family that is reconstructing after being separated by a cult. The father, Roy (Shannon) has just procured his child, Alton (Lieberher) with the help of his childhood friend Lucas (Edgerton). That his friend willingly surrendered his career as a state trooper exemplifies the importance of the mission. The cult had excommunicated Alton’s mother (Dunst) whilst its leader took the role of Alton’s father, even going so far as to adopt him. All of this happens offscreen before  we ever see any of the characters.

Now the men and boy are on the run. They encounter some dangerous circumstances, even from those that they are supposed to trust. Some of this is extremely surprising, more for what happens than who it happens to. At the same time, the federal government has gotten wind of the disappearance and take advantage of the situation to close in on the cult.

Alton, we discover, has certain abilities that have brought concern to those who keep secrets. At the same time, his gifts have convinced the cult that something is going to happen within days. Both groups have sent forces out in an attempt to reacquire Alton as he and his now reunited family make their way to a set of coordinates ordained by the boy.

Paul Sevier (Driver), who is working for the government, is trying to piece it all together. His efforts within the reach of the government, the forces of the cult and the family must converge at some point. All of this is plays out in a fascinating way.

As with every Jeff Nichols story, the story, acting and dialogue are superb. Michael Shannon is the engine and is once more the de facto altar ego for Nichols. His fierce determination to get his son to where he needs to go pervades every scene. Shannon has had a wonderful career, but he reaches another level working with Nichols. It’s a partnership that one has to hope is rewarded one day.

His son gradually grows in understanding of his ability and his role in life. Lieberher has the gravity to evolve before our eyes in a believable way. His Alton is childlike and wise at once: a tough trick to pull off for a child actor, much less someone writing for and directing the actor.

Edgerton gives a great performance in what would be a throwaway role for most stories of the kind. His motivations are rarely clear, but his loyalty is unquestionable. He has an incredible Texas accent, given his Australian heritage. It’s a character that should be just the driver, but in Nichols’ and Edgerton’s hands, he is a person we come to know, if not entirely understand.

Dunst is to be commended in her performance. She totally disappears into the character. We feel the guilt, elation and a connection to the reality of this most spectacular series of events. It’s tough to imagine her kissing Spider-man with the feeling one possesses while seeing her attempt to reconnect with a son she is seeing change even in the short time they’ve reconnected.

Driver here plays the Charles Martin Smith role in the story. We see his dedication to curiosity and what is right even through the machinations that seem oblivious to good as a concept. That he is better here than he is as Kylo Ren should not be a surprise. Here’s hoping he can apply some of the depth to his next outing donning the mask and saber.

Many of the elements and filming methods of the story are borrowed from other movies. We feel an obvious connection to Starman and Close Encounters. The strangest similarity is perhaps the one least intentional. Everything works for the most part until we find this similarity in the midst of the confusing final act. It makes one wonder if the reason for the delay in releasing the film (from November 2015) is due to how closely it resembles a film that was released last year. It’s too close for comfort even now. Despite that drawback, the final shot of the film succeeds for those who enjoyed the way Take Shelter ended.

Nichols succeeds with this story, but not to the level of his previous work. The pace works, and the effects are in keeping with the rest of the story up until that big reveal. If you loved what Nichols has done before, you will like this one. That it’s not the groundbreaking work one would hope for feels like a disappointment, and that’s a little unfair. If you hadn’t seen the previous work of the director with his number one actor, you’d think this film is more than fine.

(**** out of *****)

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