Midnight Special is just great

With sparse marketing that was cryptic to the point of being confrontational, Midnight Special’s trump card is how instantly recognizable it is, from Alton’s piercing eye glow to the film’s uniquely relaxing piano theme. Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

In Midnight Special, the cult surrounding supernatural child Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) frequently takes communion by looking into his glowing eyes. When asked, members can’t describe what they see, only that it feels peaceful and they want to see it again.

That’s more or less the impression the movie leaves you with.

At the film’s start, Alton has been abducted from his adoptive father, Calvin (Sam Shepard), who leads the cult around the boy, by his biological father, Roy (Michael Shannon) and Roy’s childhood friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton). The cult formed around Alton because of his many powers, one of which includes compulsively picking up and decoding satellite signals, which the cult takes as his gospel. Followers of Alton’s fits have determined a specific date, four days from the movie’s start, to be significant. Naturally, they’ve assumed it’s the apocalypse. However, Roy and others have determined that a specific location in Florida is also significant, and believes Alton needs to be there on the day in question. Roy, Lucas and Alton travel from the West Texas ranch to Florida pursued by the FBI, which has started investigating the cult at the same time, and two of the cult’s hit men.

There’s a language to cinema. It’s abstract and extremely difficult to translate — either as a director or a viewer — but every now and then a movie comes along that just gets that language right, and Midnight Special is that movie.

This movie is just good. It works so well on so many subtle levels. It starts in the first scene, which instantly has viewers sympathizing with Roy and Lucas even when all they know for sure about the duo is they’re heavily armed and subject of a nationwide manhunt. This movie is drawing a lot of comparisons to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and that’s a great comparison because getting the language of cinema right was what made Steven Spielberg such a legend in his prime.

The language of cinema is a nebulous concept that I’m not going to even try to get into in any detail, for a better grasp check out Tony Zhou’s wonderful Youtube channel Every Frame a Painting or just watch Jurassic Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark again.

Michael Shannon can’t help but stand out. Featuring in all five of Nichols’ movies and playing the director’s obvious surrogate character here, his performance is at once larger-than-life and thoughtful. Zealous and abrasive, Roy protects his son’s well-being at any cost and by any means, pushing parental protectiveness to the point that its moral standing genuinely comes into question.

Midnight Special could be an unsatisfying movie for some because it raises more questions about its own plot than it answers. It’s got that arthouse plot structure, starting with a mystery then deliberately unraveling it as the film goes on. The big, overarching chase — Roy, Alton and Lucas fleeing the ranch and the FBI — is cut short by the apocalyptic date’s arrival, and the payoff is nice but underwhelming. There’s never any solid explanation of what Alton is or why he is.

This is part of what writer/director Jeff Nichols was trying to capture. During the film’s initial development, Nichols’ eight-month-old son had a febrile seizure, a fit caused by rapid change in body temperature in infants and toddlers. This type of seizure has no long-term implications and Nichols’ son, now 5, is perfectly healthy, but the incident forced the new father to swiftly come to terms with his son’s mortality. In Midnight Special, Nichols wanted to capture the furious uncertainty of that night in a bottle, and it’s exactly what he did.

Personal and emotionally intense, check your desire for plot details at the door. This is a movie about the ride, not the destination.

Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. I’ve had a change of heart in regard to reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

 

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