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In his fourth feature, Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols pays transporting homage to the rich tradition, spanning the late 1970s through the mid-’80s, of intelligent sci-fi emotionally grounded in relatable human dynamics. There’s an explicit nod, in particular, to John Carpenter’s Starman, echoed even in the enveloping mood of David Wingo’s driving electronic score. But this suspenseful, beautifully acted supernatural thriller is also very much of a piece with Nichols’ overarching thematic concerns and stylistic approach, with notably strong links to another riveting study in fatherhood, family and home, Take Shelter. And like that film, it’s built around a performance of formidable gravitas from Michael Shannon.
Fanboys with big f/x addictions and short attention spans will no doubt be resistant to the unhurried film’s restraint and sobriety. But following its premiere platform in competition in Berlin, Warner Bros.’ March release should see a steady build of appreciation as word gets out to discerning genre buffs. There are quiet evocations here not only of Starman, but also of sci-fi as diverse as The Man Who Fell to Earth, E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The title, of course, comes from the famous folk song that dates back to the early part of the 20th century. Lead Belly recorded a 1934 version in Angola Prison, which enriched the interpretation of the song’s lyrics, suggesting that the light shone from the passing train of the title beamed directly into the singer’s jail cell. That idea, in which a blinding spectrum of light brings comfort and the promise of release, is a key motif in Nichols’ film. But in a story that unfolds almost entirely on the road, there’s a playful connection also to the 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival cover, a Southern rock classic, which was used in the prologue and epilogue of 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie, both featuring late-night driving scenes.
Nichols’ screenplay expertly peels away exposition and drops us in a story already in motion, with scenes set up to infer one situation only to reveal another via meticulously parceled out fragments of information. There’s also some sly humor in the use of that most unreliable and overheated narrator, Nancy Grace, to share the sensationalist media account.
An 8-year-old boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) has allegedly been abducted from his home in a gated Texas religious community known as the Ranch, where the sect’s leader, Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), took charge of his upbringing two years earlier. The boy has hit the road with his biological father, Roy Tomlin (Shannon), later revealed to have been raised within the Ranch. Accompanying them and providing muscle in sticky situations is Roy’s childhood buddy Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a state trooper persuaded as to the necessity of the fugitives’ flight by mysterious things that Alton has shown him. As they head East across the Southern states, they also reconnect with Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), who fled the Ranch in despair when her son was taken from her.
Alton initially seems like any normal kid, immersed in a Superman comic for much of the journey. But he wears tinted swimming goggles and noise-canceling headphones. This suggests hypersensitivity to light and sound, but the reality of his condition and capabilities slowly emerges as something far more complex, illustrated in a handful of arresting set-pieces that explain a little more at every step.
The landscape across which the anxious family unit travels is classic Americana — gas stations and cheap motels dotted along lonely roads under beautiful, brooding skies, shot in atmospherically grainy widescreen by Nichols’ regular cinematographer Adam Stone.
As the fugitives race toward a preordained destination with a four-day deadline and mounting concerns about Alton’s declining health, other forces mobilize on their tail. Meyer sends two senior Ranch flock members, Levi (Scott Haze) and Doak (Bill Camp), while the FBI, led by Agent Miller (Paul Sparks), rounds up the religious cult’s populace for questioning, alerted by their high-volume purchasing of firearms. NSA officer Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) also comes in, making the Feds’ office in Mobile, Ala., his base and becoming the mission’s lead operations analyst. Meyer thinks Alton is the savior while Sevier thinks he’s a weapon.
Very little can be disclosed of the plot developments without spoilers, but the story involves intercepted signals and encrypted government data incorporated into Meyer’s sermons, which Sevier eventually distills down to destination coordinates.
Aided by Julie Monroe’s editing, which sustains the necessary pace yet gives each scene room to breathe, Nichols is in supreme control as he establishes tension and then progressively tightens the story’s hold.
The actors are excellent, each of the central group bringing something distinctive to his or her deep bond to Alton. Even Edgerton’s burly Lucas, a relative stranger who has known the kid for only a short time, seems profoundly affected by him. Dunst follows her sublimely off-kilter work on season two of Fargo (best TV of the past year) with a complete about-face in a subdued yet moving portrait of a woman torn between maternal love and the understanding that her child might not belong to her. And Shannon adds another powerful entry to his gallery of burdened souls, finding the quiet moments of tenderness in Roy even as his intense concentration on the high-stakes deliverance task at hand never wavers. There’s so much going on behind Shannon’s eyes, sketching the character’s history with Alton as well as his own future sorrow without an ounce of sentimentality.
As much as Tye Sheridan’s sensitive work was the heart of Nichols’ Mud, Lieberher is a model of naturalness here, handling the everykid scenes as effortlessly as those divulging the full scope of Alton’s origin, power and intelligence. The preternatural calm and authority he demonstrates as all that becomes clear is impressive indeed, particularly in a fabulous one-on-one scene with Driver’s rattled Sevier.
Midnight Special confirms Nichols’ uncommon knack for breathing dramatic integrity and emotional depth into genre material. The film also benefits from the formal elegance of its two-act structure, the first part unfolding mainly in the secrecy of night, and the second in the glaring vulnerability of daylight.
Visual effects work is fairly modest in scale but first-rate, once again overseen by Hydraulx, an outfit known for much larger studio pictures, but whose classy contributions are as significant here as they were to the spell of Take Shelter. And at the risk of giving too much away, special mention must be made of the elaborate environment created for one stunning late scene by Alex McDowell, the British immersive design wizard known for his innovative work on Minority Report.
Drake Doremus attempted something comparably retro last year with Equals, which missed the mark despite some knockout design elements and compelling work from the consistently underrated Kristen Stewart. But in all departments, from script to performances to technical execution, Nichols’ film is a rare throwback to mesmerizing sci-fi for grownups.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)
Distribution: Warner Bros.
Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Jaeden Lieberher, Sam Shepard, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Paul Sparks, David Jensen
Production companies: Tri-State Production, Faliro House Productions, RatPac-Dune Entertainment
Director-screenwriter: Jeff Nichols
Producers: Sarah Green, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones
Executive producers: Glen Basner, Hans Graffunder, Christos V. Konstantakopoulos
Director of photography: Adam Stone
Production designer: Chad Keith
Costume designer: Erin Benach
Music: David Wingo
Editor: Julie Monroe
Visual effects: Hydraulx
Visual effects supervisor: Bill Kunin
Casting: Francine Maisler
Rated PG-13, 112 minutes
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