Sunday, April 17, 2016
Midnight Special: Bright-Eyed Boy, Phone Home
And Midnight Special, the fourth film from writer-director Jeff Nichols, is not your typical movie. Exactly what it is, however, is harder to determine. Is it a science-fiction thriller? A magical fairytale? A parable of governmental interference? An admonition of cultish groupthink? Midnight Special carries hints of all of these, and its fractured, enigmatic identity is both tantalizing and, ultimately, dissatisfying. Its pieces are all strong—solid acting, impressive craft, moments of raw power—but it is so resistant to coherence that those pieces just sit in isolation, never coalescing into a compelling whole. It refuses to conform and ends up just being formless.
This sort of dissonance is nothing new for Nichols. His prior film, Mud, disguised itself as a noirish potboiler but worked far better as a clandestine coming-of-age story. Before that, he made Take Shelter, a fascinating, frustrating study of paranoia and mental illness. (I have not seen his debut, Shotgun Stories.) He likes to mess around with genre, to operate within traditional filmmaking landscapes while simultaneously distorting them into something new. In this sense, Midnight Special is both Nichols's most ambitious and his most conventional movie to date. In many ways, it is a familiar slice of Spielbergian wonder, featuring aliens, a precious child, shadowy government agencies, and a beat-the-clock journey. But it is also an oblique, unhurried meditation on family and humanity, the kind of placid film that sports numerous shots of people staring pensively into the distance.
Got it? I didn't think so. But the theory of Midnight Special is that your struggle to comprehend its plot is thought-provoking rather than maddening. Thus, while it follows the standard template of the chase movie—Alton's escape leads to a series of suspenseful encounters with law enforcement, Calvin's henchmen, and assorted third parties—Nichols shows minimal interest in elucidating the film's story. He's more concerned with demonstrating Alton's effect on others, and exploring how we grounded humans might react to something beyond our comprehension. Alton occasionally exhibits the characteristics of both an alien (seriously, what is up with those eyes?) and a vampire (he struggles with sunlight), and his indisputable otherworldliness produces an intriguing spectrum of reactions and behavior. Calvin is convinced that the boy can lead his flock to the promised land, but he countenances terrible measures to return Alton to the ranch. Paul is at first more wary than awed, though he grows to accept Alton's presence as benign and perhaps divine. And Roy—along with Alton's mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst, doing a lot with little)—just wants to help his son, regardless of his eccentricities.
This is disappointing, especially because many individual scenes in Midnight Special are flat-out terrific. The film invites obvious comparisons with both E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and while Nichols is no Spielberg as a visualist, he possesses a confident command behind the camera. This is most evident in Julie Monroe's editing; many scenes end a touch before you expect them to, resulting in a frisson of uncertainty. And while the movie is briskly paced, Nichols can also exercise patience, and a handful of quiet moments—a sunrise, a shooting's aftermath, a shot of Dunst silently looking at herself in the mirror—achieve something close to majesty. This gentle grandeur helps compensate for an oddly sloppy screenplay that's plagued with halfhearted explanations and plentiful contrivances. At one point, a character studies a series of coordinates on a whiteboard, then suddenly exclaims, "I know where he's going!" without bothering to explain how he arrived at this knowledge. Later, Roy and Alton barrel through what has to be the feeblest roadblock the American military has ever constructed.