Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Midnight Special (spoilers) (2016)

Midnight Special is the rare sci-fi film that treats its audience with immense respect.  There's a deliberate pensiveness to the film that goes against nearly all modern trends; it never bombards the audience with exposition or plot; it instead seeks to intrigue and make the audience demand more.  Jeff Nichols (Mud) serves as writer and director, and it's clear from the start that Midnight Special opts for the feel of an indie film rather than a Hollywood spectacle despite its Spielbergian influences.  There are long stretches with no dialogue, scenes that give us more questions than answers, and a constant air of urgency despite the relatively slow pace.  It tries to instill awe in its audience, and I'd say it mostly gets there.  While its story appears simplistic initially, there are actually numerous complex themes to discover once you start looking for them.

The film centers around a young boy named Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), who has a powerful gift.  He has the power to show people a wonderful place and give them immense joy, almost like a living drug. Subjected to worship by a religious cult in Texas called the Ranch, Alton is saved by his father Roy (Michael Shannon) and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), and are subsequently chased across the country by the FBI.  Alton, growing ever-weaker, needs to get to a location in Florida, burned in his head for an unknown reason, as soon as possible.  Along the way, they stop at the home of Alton's mother Sarah (Kirstin Dunst), avoid a meteorite shower at a gas station, and are nearly stopped altogether by an FBI communications analyst named Sevier (Adam Driver).  Alton eventually discovers that the sunlight (which previously gave him intense pain) is actually what gives him strength, and that his gifts are the result of him not belonging this world.

Some of the strongest parts of Midnight Special are in that first half hour, before we know a lick of what's going on.  The mystery builds, tensions rise, and we're introduced to the characters purely through situations.  There are shocking moments of violence littered throughout the otherwise subtle narrative, which gives them weight and purpose.  There's a sense of grounded reality to the characters' reactions and interactions, and the production reflects that with its very lived-in nature and first-person perspective to much of the spectacle.  It gives us a sense that we're experiencing every moment with the characters, making the story involving even when we don't fully understand what's happening (the gas station meteor shower undoubtedly being the film's best moment).

I would say that while the film is extremely well-acted, the characters aren't especially lovable (save for maybe Lucas) and we don't get inside their heads nearly enough.  This is especially problematic when it comes to Alton, who doesn't seem happy, upset, or much of anything as he's whisked away from the cult by his father and taken on this crazy adventure.  What does he think of having powers?  Is he sad that he has to leave his parents?  What was their relationship like before all this?  On top of that, his most transformative moment happens offscreen, and he tells the other characters about it later (and after all that time without forced expository dialogue no less!)  It all feels just a bit underdeveloped, which collides with the Spielbergian tone the film takes on at times.  Elliot in E.T. is flawed and emotional, Roy from Close Encounters of the Third Kind is determined and charismatic.  Sadly, none of the characters in Midnight Special were able to get under my skin and make me feel anything.

What I find more impressive is the way that the movie handles its themes.   Due to the strong visual sensibilities of the film (it's gorgeously shot by the way) and non-reliance on explanations, the audience can draw their own conclusions about what the film means.  I see it as a parable for smart, misunderstood kids who grow up in small towns, but eventually leave to pursue college, work in the city, etc.  At the end of the film, we see a parallel world that Alton needs to become a part of, and it shines like a futuristic metropolis.  He leaves behind his small, rural town to use his talents somewhere else, even though it means saying goodbye to his parents.  As I mentioned, it could have been more emotional, but it's still a well-crafted moment that echoes the notion that eventually, children have to leave the nest.  Other themes I picked up on center around children in cults, familial bonds, and addiction.  I always appreciate strong themes in genre pictures, mostly because without them, the spectacle is empty.

That's my long-winded way of saying that I respect Midnight Special, and greatly enjoy parts of it, I can't bring myself to love it.  With a firmer grasp on its characters, it might have achieved greatness; but mere goodness is nothing to scoff at.  Its mystery is executed with a fantastic, timeless atmosphere, it features haunting visuals helmed by cinematographer Adam Stone, and a beautiful, subtle musical score by David Wingo.  The actors are fantastic, and commit fully to their unglamourous, grounded roles so fully that I don't think they're even wearing make-up.  So it may not  be at Spielberg levels, but that's an ambition many have strived for and achieved (at least as far as movies go; Stranger Things knocked it out of the park).  Midnight Special is an overlooked gem, and in a cinematic landscape that's sorely lacking in smart, sophisticated sci-fi, that's a darn shame.