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Midnight Special
Midnight Special  

showtimes review

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Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Sam Shepard, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Sean Bridgers, Dana Gourrier, Paul Sparks
Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Produced by: Sarah Green, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Glen Basner, Hans Graffunder, Christos V. Konstantakopoulos
Written by:
Genre: Mystery, Science fiction, Thriller
MPAA rating: PG-13
Runtime: 111 minutes
Release date:   Apr 8, 2016
Official website [external site]
Chicago Tribune   Michael Phillips
"Midnight Special" puts its potential audience at a crossroads. You say you want a genuinely unpredictable film combining more genres than can be accurately charted, acted with force and grace throughout? You want an antidote to "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice"? Then take the road less traveled.

Writer-director Jeff Nichols has concocted a chase drama; a science fiction parable about parents and children; a story of a religious cult's and the U.S. government's pursuit of powers beyond their control -- and that's just for starters. Nichols manages several big things very well here, and one big thing less well. We'll get to that part, albeit obliquely. But the movie's worth seeing. In each of his four features to date across the past decade, "Shotgun Stories," "Take Shelter," "Mud" and now "Midnight Special," Nichols gets us to lean in, and to throw away or at least reconsider a few preconceptions about how much and what sort of narrative baby-sitting an audience requires.

"Midnight Special" begins in a motel, with what appears to be an abduction in progress. Two armed men, Roy (Michael Shannon) and the clearly subordinate Lucas (Joel Edgerton), are all over the TV news, having stolen young Alton (Jaeden Lieberher, last seen tormenting Bill Murray in "St. Vincent") from a Texas doomsday cult of ambiguous intent.

Soon we learn Roy is the 8-year-old's father and, in his way, a good one. Like Alton, he has escaped the confines of The Ranch, the religious cult led by the taciturn power figure played by Sam Shepard. Alton has special powers, and attendant vulnerabilities. At one point, for which the filmmaker finds just the right way to deploy just the right sort of digital effects, the boy telepathically sends a satellite out of orbit, its smashed fragments crashing smack into a rural Louisiana gas station.

This strange little person has the ability, alluded to in the film's trailers, to send blinding beams of light into the eyes, and the soul, of ordinary humans, changing their perception and knowledge forever. The cult wants him back; the Shepard character has built a career on Alton's so-called prophecies. Adam Driver portrays a National Security Agency analyst investigating the logic-defying matter of Alton. The boy is light-sensitive in the extreme; much of "Midnight Special" unfolds and moves forward at night, with Lieberher wearing swimming goggles, poring over comic books.

Kirsten Dunst takes an increasingly prominent role in the film's tricky later scenes as Alton's mother. She and Shannon play parents who are flying blind, as all parents must, to varying degrees. They know only that they must deliver Alton to a predetermined place at a specific time, for reasons unknown.

What happens, when it happens, is ... well, either enough or too much, depending on your taste for the fantastic. We are shown unearthly sights, which both visually and narratively prove a little frustrating. This is the aspect of "Midnight Special" preventing what is, two-thirds of the way, a sharp and inventive entertainment from sustaining its power to a memorable denouement. Echoes of Spielberg ("E.T.," "The Sugarland Express," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind") and John Carpenter ("Starman") can be heard in the film, but Nichols is his own plain-spoken artist. "Midnight Special" asserts the director's newfound facility for crisply staged and effectively punchy action, when the story calls for it. Shooting on widescreen 35 millimeter film, Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone give their images a tactile, old-school texture, augmented seamlessly by digital photography in the car interior night scenes. Nichols' directorial eye is fast catching up with his authorial ear.

I suspect my issues with the climax would be quieted by a different design strategy. En route, however, Nichols keeps the action and the people mysterious without being needlessly cryptic, though his notions of genre filmmaking are not most people's. In the right filmmaker's hands, plot (to paraphrase T.S. Eliot) is the steak you throw over the fence to distract the guard dog, while you concentrate on other matters, and the stuff of life. The key line in "Midnight Special" is a simple one. Alton reminds his father not to worry about what's coming. "I like worrying about you," Roy replies, and the way Shannon says it, it's sweet, sad and honest all at once. Moments such as those make up for a lot and, in the end, make the movie.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some violence and action).

Running time: 1:51