Midnight Special (2016)

2016 SXSW Film Festival

midnight-special-poster

Emerging from the independent film scene backed by a distributor willing to take a shot on independent science-fiction, Jeff Nichols and longtime collaborator Michael Shannon untie forces again to explore the supernatural. Well, explore might be too loose of a term, as this film is less interested in exploring the supernatural than it is the characters affected by it. The focus of the film lies on the shoulders of Alton (Jaden Lieberher), a young boy who’s been kidnapped by two men. The story takes Texas and the nation by storm, as different government groups become involved in the finding of the missing boy. All the while, we understand that he’s clearly the center of something, but what exactly?

And then there was light!
And then there was light!

Jeff Nichol’s is no stranger to exploring the potentially supernatural, as he displayed in the phenomenal Take Shelter. With Mud, he captured the life of two young boys getting a little in over their head. Combine the both and the final product would resemble something akin to Midnight Special. We spend a large deal of time with Lieberher and Shannon, who work to create an intensely strong bond between father and son. Shannon delivers yet another great performance which sees him tone down the gruff side of his acting as he has to be somewhat of a role model for his son. That’s not to say that he doesn’t do some very questionable things in the film, but you understand his reasoning and anytime you may have a shred of doubt in terms of his decisions, the film naturally returns to the love and care he feels for his son and his actions seem more justifiable.  The audience feels the weight of his heart drop anytime his son may be in peril and that just speaks to the comfortability that Nichols and Shannon share given their previous endeavors.

As Alton, the mysteriously gifted young boy whom many people wish to acquire, Lieberher’s performance is quite reserved. He’s a quiet boy who has had to grow up living a very specific lifestyle, so as not to become a danger to himself or anyone else. It’s hard enough to see anyone go through pain, but watching some of what Lieberher goes through and how he reacts is another testament to this young boy’s talent. He won me over in St. Vincent and though he’s given slightly less to do in the film, his polite and peculiar tendencies cause you to grow invested in his safety. Alongside Shannon stands his best friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), who only knows the little information that we do. Edgerton is almost just as quiet as Lieberher, but his reservations fall in line with those of the audiences at times. We don’t really know what all this boy is capable of, which could really go either way. Kirsten Dunst rounds out the supporting cast as Liebeher’s mother, giving a moving performance as a mother who just wants her son to be safe.

Michael Shannon will do anything to protect those he loves.
Michael Shannon will do anything to protect those he loves.

Safety is a huge aspect of this film and it’s in these intense moments of potential threats that Shannon would do anything in the world to keep his son out of harm’s way. He’s the only one who really knows what his son is capable of and that scares him throughout the entirety of the film. Rather than tapping into the boy’s powers or the conspiracy’s surrounding it, Nichols and co. are more interested in seeing how a family would handle such circumstances. In that regard, it’s refreshing not to view everything from some government group’s eyes and despite their uncertainty in regards to the potential threats the boy could prove, we get very deep into following characters who will do anything to remain unnoticed. They alone know to some extent what Liebeher is capable of and the film does a great job of asking you to imagine yourself in their shoes and question how far you would go, despite all the odds being stacked against you.

Where Midnight Special falls short is unfortunately with its lack of certain explanations, or the fact that they never circle back to issues which makeup a majority of the films first act. We’re introduced to characters and certain lifestyles early on that lead you to believe the film has more to say about this boy and what people want him for. However, none of that ends up being a big factor in the end and the resolve is somewhat underwhelming. There are some really interesting questions and motivations brought up during the film that are never fleshed out and end up leaving you wondering what real purpose they serve. For all the familial aspects we get as well, there was somewhat of a disconnect in a few of the central relationships which left more to be desired to create a totally believable ending.

Oh yeah...I guess Adam Driver is in the movie for a bit.
Oh yeah…I guess Adam Driver is in the movie for a bit.

Midnight Special is a curious sci-fi family adventure that greatly benefits from a talented group of people collaborating on something that attempts to differentiate itself enough from the genre. There are some truly tense and incredible sequences spread out in the two-hour runtime and the score for the film elevates the entire film, as well as specific moments in which it greatly enhances. Michael Shannon is undoubtedly the backbone of this film and Nichols interest in people is still enough to make this film unique. It’s not their best work that they’ve done, but it’s definitely interesting and worth a look if you’re a fan of the genre.

Midnight Special Trailer

3.5 / 5 stars     

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