Midnight Special (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Midnight Special (2016)

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Two men are on the run with an odd boy who needs to wear goggles at night.  At their heels are agents from the Federal government and members of a religious community, both determined to reclaim the boy and what they think he represents.  As the men travel on, the extent of the boy's unique existence manifests itself in unusual and dangerous events, and their wish to bring the boy to his destiny grows stronger.  Jeff Nichols writes and directs Midnight Special, starring Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher, Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver, and Kirsten Dunst.

Maybe this will change when I rent Loving next week, but I'm four films in and it's starting to look like Jeff Nichols can do no wrong.  I admit a certain bias here because the majority of his films have revolved around life in the south.  While I don't have the same yearning to live in South Carolina as I used to, I still remember the broken down train cars, the cracked highways, and the night that was always bustling with more activity than my brain sometimes knew how to handle.  Most importantly, and applicable to Midnight Special, is how inextricable the south is from memories of my father.

The many unspoken rules of manliness and honor in the south exemplified by my father quietly influenced much of my early development.  I remember the creak of the rocking chair as he tried to get me to sleep when I was in pain, or how he put me up on a pinball machine to watch him play.  There are strong critiques I could, and have, leveled against the south's specific ideas of manliness, but watching Midnight Special only left me with the pain, joy, honor, and fantasy of growing up under a good man in the south.

While billed as science fiction, Midnight Special is primarily concerned with the relationship between Roy (Michael Shannon), and his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher).  Roy is another one of Shannon's triumphs as a performer.  Shannon's trades his usual intensity for something more loving than wounded in the space between breaths, the crack in his voice, and his slumped posture as he wills himself awake for one more minute.  All we need is the slight lift in his voice when he tells Alton, "I like worrying about you," to understand the depths of his love for his son.

Nichols continues to capture the south in a way that preserves all its natural threat, gradual decay, and resilient beauty.

Even without Shannon Midnight Special would be an embarrassment of riches from a performance standpoint.  Most notable is Adam Driver, who exudes surprising menace and sensitivity that betrays his appearance as a government lackey.  Then one of my favorites, Joel Edgerton, showcases a different kind of brotherly loyalty in his drive to protect both Roy and Alton.  Finally, there's Kirsten Dunst, who is having some of the best damn years of her career now that she's free from the Spider-Man franchise.  They all bring different protective strengths as performers alongside Shannon, showcasing the lengths they're willing to go in pointed exchanges of dialogue and bursts of intense physicality.

The unusual family unit plays host to one of my favorite aspects of Nichols' films - how suspicious they are of large organizations.  Regardless of whether it's the government, or a religious institution, no side fully understands what the other wants and thinks they have the key to understanding.  Nichols, who also wrote the screenplay, has low-key fun with this in an early conversation between a religious enclave and the government.  From the former, "These are the words of our Lord," to the latter, "Or the Federal government," neither grasp the human element of Alton's mysterious abilities, trapped as they are within their understanding of power within their institutions.

Nichols does not make light of the tremendous power of those who feel they are righteous.  In a stunning early sequence, school buses move like warning shots through the dark of the night while armed agents of the government appear suddenly from the shadows.  The religious enclave is home to its own share of powerful obsessives as Nichols shoots sparse testimonials from the enclave's inhabitants, each gaunt and focused in an unsettling gaze.  Like the cracked pillars of a highway or the run-down hotels housing Roy's escape, these institutions are threatening to break apart the families they ostensibly protect.

A mid-film government interrogation recalls the early testimonials from the religious enclave.

That brings us to the only faith that matters, that of the father in his ability to protect his son, and the son gaining confidence he will steer his father in the right direction.  This is the foundation of many families, not just fathers and sons, and how Midnight Special has such far-reaching power.  So confident is Nichols in the universal nature of Roy and Alton's relationship that he ends Midnight Special on an absolutely spellbinding note.  For four minutes, without dialogue, set to a droning synth-heavy soundtrack, Nichols allows us a glimpse into the future parents hope for their children.  Any in the audience hoping for a clear explanation will not get one.  All that matters is both parent and child's faith in one another is rewarded.

Give me emotion over clarity any day.  Midnight Special doesn't need an outside observer coming in and telling us, "What it all means."  Nichols anticipates this with Driver's government agent, caught up in his work to a degree that he becomes shell-shocked at the sight of a love that transcends what we understand about the universe.  Our feeble systems filled with weak and misguided people pale next to the pure blinding hope one generation feels for the next.

Midnight Special is Nichols' most optimistic film so far.  With that optimism comes more uncertainty and trust in the audience that they'll let go of their need for explanation.  For once, amid the cracked foundations of the south, the world isn't ending - it's only just begun.

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Midnight Special (2016)

Screenplay written and directed by Jeff Nichols.
Starring Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, and Adam Driver.

Posted by Andrew

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