Saturday, April 9, 2016

Review: "Midnight Special"

"Midnight Special" has that Spielbergian element of wonderment but not the emotional connection. Writer/director Jeff Nichols' fourth feature film, all of which feature Michael Shannon, fills the mind but not the heart. It's a mystery that reveals too little of itself, as if afraid to lay down its big cards and see how the audience reacts.

It's still a worthy film. But compared to the unnerving appeal of "Take Shelter" or the twangy, Twain-esque charm of "Mud," it feels like a bit of a letdown.

Two men are on the run, having kidnapped a curious young boy. Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), 8, sits in the back of the car, content and unafraid, reading comic books while wearing dark goggles as they flee in an old muscle car -- even though it's night. Alton never goes anywhere during the day, never goes out at all in the light.

Answers are few, and drip out at a sometimes frustratingly slow pace.

Roy (Shannon) says he's the boy's father, but we're not entirely certain. He's a little distant, giving instructions in a harsh tone. He seems to regard Alton as an obligation rather than someone to be loved. The other guy is Lucas (Joel Edgerton); we know even less about him than the other two. But he handles himself well in tight corners, and we get the sense that's why he's there.

They clearly care about Alton, revere him even; but it's the sort of care you might have for a pet tiger.

Clearly Alton is special. We know this because a (too) long expository sequence introduces us to The Ranch, a religious cult run by Calvin (Sam Shepard), who is Alton's adoptive father. They've got a Branch Davidian feel -- pastoral, patriarchal, well-armed and expecting a reckoning any day now. The FBI has been watching them for some time, and when Alton is kidnapped they search the place and question everybody.

Adam Driver plays Paul Sevier, a bookish type from the NSA who's brought in because some of the Ranch's scripture includes data that could only come from top-secret satellite communications. Calvin patiently explains that the boy sometimes speaks in tongues, and they write down what he says and regard it as holy text.

There are also reports of supernatural powers, light coming from Alton's eyes, and those who commune with this illumination feel a sense of peace and fulfilmment.

After the feds have left, Calvin dispatches some of his own men (Bill Camp, Scott Haze) with guns to track Roy down and bring Alton back.

We eventually meet up with Alton's mother (Kirsten Dunst), who is eager to be reunited with her son. We get the sense Alton was taken away from her and Roy without their entire willing consent. Both used to be part of the cult, and broke away at some point, or were thrown out.

"We get the sense" is largely the way the audience experiences this movie. Too many filmmakers feel compelled to spell everything out for us, to the point there are no surprises. Nichols goes too far the other way, raising tantalizing question and possibilities and then... just leaving them out there, unexplored.

Since the Ranch folks seem to regard Alton as their resident savior, did the cult exist before he came into their midst? Or did they adjust their beliefs to accommodate his supernatural abilities?

Eventually we learn more about Alton, what he can do, what his purpose is. But the information arrives so late in the going it doesn't have time to register with a lot of visceral impact. There's too much chase-chase and not enough questioning why they're running, and why others are chasing.

Despite all this, I liked the movie. It's in some ways a spiritual successor to "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial." Alton is the intriguing Other whose mystery must be puzzled out, but doing so means certain loss for those who join the quest. Dangerous people join in the hunt, some with benevolent intentions, others selfish, but either way their interference just serves to prevent Alton from fulfilling his destiny.

There's been a lot of buzz about "Midnight Special," but the studio decided to dump it into theaters without any fanfare or screenings. (They even moved up its limited release by a week on short notice.) It's a shame. It's a flawed but worthwhile film that bespeaks of better things to come.

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