Sunday, April 10, 2016
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, Midnight Special is the story of a man and his son who escape a religious cult when it’s revealed the boy has special powers where the cult as well as federal authorities try to go after the two. The film is a sci-fi adventure of sorts set in the American South as a father and his friend try to go to a mystery destination for this boy where they would later receive help from the boy’s mother. Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Paul Sparks, Jaeden Lieberher, and Sam Shepard. Midnight Special is a thrilling yet touching film from Jeff Nichols.
Set in the American South, the film revolves a man who had kidnapped his son from a religious cult as he gets the help from an old friend in taking them to a secret destination where they’re chased by federal authorities and members of the cult. It’s a film that is about a father trying to help his son while wrestling with the fact that his son does have these special powers that can’t be described as the boy is also somewhat immune to sunlight. They’re later joined by the boy’s mother who was excommunicated from the church as she tries to cope with her son’s weakened state while helping her estranged husband and his friend in evading the authorities. At the same time, a FBI analyst tries to uncover the mysteries as he would make some major discoveries of his own.
Jeff Nichols’ script doesn’t exactly try to create something that is just a film that blends sci-fi, adventure, family drama, and as a road movie. It’s also a film that has a lot into what is at stake as the boy Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) has to wear goggles and is immune to daylight where he, his father Roy (Michael Shannon), and Roy’s childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) have to travel at night and stop before dawn where they would cover motel windows via cardboard and duct tape. Lucas, a state trooper, would use a radio to hear police reports and find ways to evade them as he wonders what is going on where he too realizes what is at stake where the three cope with the fact that there is very few they could trust including Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) who hadn’t seen her son in years. The FBI believe that Alton is a weapon as they want to catch him and see what he is about but there are also members of this cult who see Alton as a savior and had used his words and such as gospel.
The script also plays into the mysterious elements of Alton’s powers as his eyes would light up mysteriously for unknown reasons as Alton himself has very little idea on what he is. Even as Alton and his entourage are baffled by what they encounter and what Alton has done where Roy is trying everything he can to protect him where the two would later make a discover on where Alton needed to go and what he is. Adding to the suspense are the FBI where they bring in an analyst named Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) who is asked to work for the authorities but is really someone that is just an observer who would make a discovery of where Alton and his entourage is going. All of which would play into not just elements of mythology but also in humanity itself where a group of people are trying to do what is right in a world that is very complicated.
Nichols’ direction is quite entrancing for the way it presents a film that bends all sorts of genres but is grounded into a modern world without the need of being futuristic or anything. Shot largely in New Orleans as part of the American South where it would take place from East Texas to Florida, the film does have something that is homegrown of a world that Nichols is very familiar with where he doesn’t go too far into the world of fantasy and mythology. With its usage of wide and medium shots for the locations, Nichols also maintains an intimacy with the latter and in in the close-ups as it relates to not just the journey at hand but also the relationship between Roy and Alton which is the heart of the film. Even as there’s scenes in the second act where Roy and Alton cope with the danger of being chased as well as the latter being ill as he has a revelation of what he has to do to survive.
The direction is also quite ambitious in not just creating the air of suspense as it relates to the authorities that are involved from the FBI and military who try to stop Roy, Alton, Lucas, and Sarah but also in the fact that they know they’re being chased with news coverage being shown on televisions. Some of the scenes that involve Alton’s mysterious powers are have an air of realism including moments that are big yet Nichols keeps it grounded so that it wouldn’t overwhelm the story. The film’s climax is quite ambitious as it relates to something mythological but it also play into what is at stake about the bond between father and son as well as what a few people would do to make things right. Overall, Nichols crafts an exhilarating yet gripping film about a few people trying to get a boy to an unknown destination away from people who want him for their own reasons.
Cinematographer Adam Stone does amazing work with the film‘s cinematography with its usage of natural lights for many of the exterior scenes in day and night along with bright lights for moments where Alton‘s eyes light up and some of the interiors in the way they‘re lit inside the motel rooms. Editor Julie Monroe does excellent work with the editing as it is largely straightforward with some rhythmic cuts to play into the suspense and action. Production designer Chad Keith, with art director Austin Gorg, set decorator Adam Willis, and set landscaper Austin T. LeValley, does fantastic work with the look of the authority bases and rooms as well as the look of the cult ranch which Roy was a part of.
Costume designer Erin Benach does nice work with the costumes as it is mostly casual with the exception of some of the dresses many of the women in the cult would wear. The visual effects work of Cody Brunty is terrific for a few sequences that are driven by effects as it plays into the gifts that Alton carries. Sound designer Jeremy Bowker and sound editor Will Files do superb work with some of the sound effects that occur in the film along with the mixing of naturalistic sound to play up the atmosphere of whatever location the characters are at including the truck stops. The film’s music by David Wingo is incredible as it is largely an electronic score with some ambient textures and bass-driven synthesizer pieces that do play into the sci-fi elements in the film while the soundtrack also features music ranging from country to ranchero.
The casting by Francine Maisler is great as it features notable small roles from Bill Camp as the cult leader’s second, Scott Haze as a cult member helping out in finding Alton, Sharon Garrison as Sarah’s mother, David Jensen as a former cult member who brings shelter to Roy, Lucas, and Alton, and James Moses Black as a military officer working with the FBI in trying to find Alton. Sam Shepard is superb as the cult leader Calvin Meyer who is also Roy’s father as he is eager to get his grandson back for his own selfish reasons. Paul Sparks is excellent as FBI agent Miller as a man that is trying to find Alton while wondering if Alton is a threat to national security. Adam Driver is fantastic as FBI analyst Sevier as this man that interviews cult members and try to decode things where he makes a discovery which would be crucial for everything that is going to happen as it’s a very restrained performance with dabbles of humor.
Kirsten Dunst is amazing as Sarah as Alton’s estranged mother who hadn’t seen in him years as she helps out in the escape and going to their secret destination as well as coping with the years she had been away from her son and the things she knows about Alton’s condition. Joel Edgerton is brilliant as Lucas as a childhood friend of Roy who helps out in the journey as he tries to understand what is going on while being someone that can be helpful and do what is right. Jaeden Lieberher is phenomenal as Alton as a young boy with a special gift that deals with his situation as he tries to understand what is going on while being aware of what he can do where it’s a performance that manages to be a lot of things and a whole lot more. Finally, there’s Michael Shannon in a remarkable performance as Alton’s father Roy as this man that was once part of a cult as he tries to save his son from being something he’s not while providing a realism that is compelling such as the fact that he enjoys worrying about his son as it’s a very soulful and moving performance from Nichols.
Midnight Special is a sensational film from Jeff Nichols. Featuring great performances from Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, and Adam Driver as well as some dazzling visuals and David Wingo’s hypnotic score. The film is a fascinating genre-bender that does a whole lot more with its premise while creating something that appeals to a wide audience as it relates to the concept of family. In the end, Midnight Special is a riveting and enchanting film from Jeff Nichols.
Jeff Nichols Films: Shotgun Stories - Take Shelter - Mud - (Loving (2016 film)) - The Auteurs #58: Jeff Nichols
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