“Midnight Special” (2016)
Film is reviewed from the 2016 SXSW Film Festival screening.
A report of a missing child is playing on a TV in a motel room. We know something is up because the windows are covered with cardboard, and the front door peephole is covered with black tape. Two men (Michael Shannon, Joel Egerton) are moving around the room, getting ready to leave. One man, Lucas (Joel Egerton) removes some of the cardboard while the taller man, Roy (Michael Shannon) packs a bag. We notice that there is another person in the room, someone under a sheet on the floor with what looks like a flashlight. When the sheet is removed, we see a child, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) with blue goggles on who has been reading a comic book with the flashlight. At that moment, we see that the report on the TV is of the same child, and that he has been abducted by his father, Roy. The two men hustle little Alton out the door and into a car under the cover of darkness. They set off down the road, the driver turns off the headlights and puts on night-vision goggles. As they leave, the receptionist at the motel sees the missing child report, and as she sees the car moving down the road she reaches for a phone.
We cut to a church where a preacher (Sam Shepard) is in an office watching the same missing child report. It seems that the preacher is interested in the child and sends a lieutenant to find the boy. We can tell from the tone that this is serious business, and they mean to get the child back as soon as possible. The preacher then leaves the room and goes into a large meeting hall filled with people. The crowd is made-up of men in mostly casually wear and women in extended plain dresses with long sleeves. As the preacher is giving his sermon, the congregation says a series of numbers, as if they have done this many times before. We cut to the outside, and we see a number of black cars and vans rolling into the compound. Out of the cars and vans comes a large military-like police force that slowly and carefully make their way towards the buildings. The Feds come into the church and announce they are taking everyone in for questioning. The preacher tells his congregation to cooperate and go willingly with the government forces.
We cut back to Roy, Lucas and Alton in the car. They are monitoring the police through a scanner in the car. Roy tells Lucas to slow down and put the headlights back on. Just as he takes off the night-vision goggles and turns on the lights, they crash into another car that is entering their road. The men and the boy are stunned but not severely hurt. Lucas gets out to check on the other driver, just as a police car drives up. How far will the two men go to keep the boy from being taken by the police?
This is the compelling opening to “Midnight Special,” an absorbing and intense film from Jeff Nichols, who brought us “Mud” (2012) and “Take Shelter” (2011). When I watched this movie, I kept flashing back to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Firestarter,” with a little “E.T.” thrown in. Just how far will Roy go to protect his son and what kind of powers does Alton possess that would make both a cult-like religious group and the government want him so badly?
While a chase film with some Sci-Fi thrown in, the heart of the movie is the relationship between Roy and Alton. Nichols lets us slowly learn about Alton and his backstory, getting us to understand just how deeply the love runs between Roy and his son. Along the way, we meet Alton’s mother (Kristen Dunst), who apparently has escaped the cult and is willing to help Roy keep his son away from the government and the church. Because Nichols places relationships above everything else in this film, the movie has a much deeper and richer tone to it, making it more than just a chase film. The relationship between Roy and Lucas, we learn is due to knowing each other when they were children. This friendship is so strong that Lucas is willing to drop everything at a moment’s notice to help Roy and his son out.
The cast is outstanding, with Jaeden Lieberher giving a subtitle performance as Alton, the little boy who is dealing with having a mystical power that everyone seems to want. Joel Egerton has probably the hardest role in the film, as he has to show his conviction and loyalty through actions instead of words. Kirsten Dunst, as Alton’s mother, isn’t asked to do too much, mostly because her character is just a supporting cog in the film, with the center being the father/son relationship. Michael Shannon gives another masterful performance as the father who will protect his son at all costs. It is to the credit of Nichols writing and Shannon’s acting ability that we get this feeling from the start of the film, and there is never a time in the film where Shannon’s character has to explain fully how deeply he cares for his son. Nichols lets Roy show how much he loves his son through his actions rather than his words. We almost instantly know that Roy is a good man, even though at the start of the film, we are being told by TV reports that he has stolen his son.
Credit should go to David Wingo creating a marvelous score that helps produce tension that is allowed to build throughout the film. Director of Photography Adam Stone’s photography gives the feeling that it’s always darkest before dawn, giving the film a shadowy look that helps make each scene feel full of menace.
I was a little disappointed in the ending, and without giving anything away, I would have liked the film to end just a little sooner than it did. I feel that the ending would have been more impactful and moving if we didn’t see everything, that Nichols should have left some things to the imagination. However, the ending doesn’t take away from the fact this is an exquisite movie that touches you immensely. “Midnight Special” is a film that places the love of a father for his son above everything else and we all better for it. My Rating: Full Price
My movie rating system from Best to Worst: 1). I Would Pay to See it Again 2). Full Price 3). Bargain Matinee 4). Cable 5). You Would Have to Pay Me to See it Again
“Midnight Special” comes out this spring.