Midnight Special   (2016) dir. Jeff Nichols Rated: PG-13 image: ©2016  Warner Bros. Pictures

Midnight Special (2016)
dir. Jeff Nichols
Rated: PG-13
image: ©2016 Warner Bros. Pictures

Midnight Special is many things. It’s a moody science fiction throw back in the vein of E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s an intense on-the-run movie which takes place over the space of a few frantic days. It shows the destructive force of religious cults, and the extreme measures true believers will go to in the name of their convictions. Ultimately, Midnight Special is a tightly wound tale of a father and mother who will do anything for their child, who is at the heart of it all.

Director Jeff Nichols’ first two films, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, are both meditations on American families in the process of breaking down. In the former, years of uneasy pressure between two sets of half-brothers in Arkansas come to a boil when the patriarch of the two clans suddenly dies. The latter examines a man in Ohio whose family must face the consequences of his slow descent into mental illness. So it’s no surprise that family is at the core of Nichols’ fourth and latest film, as well.

Midnight Special tells the story of eight-year-old Alton Meyer, a kid with extraordinary powers. The boy can recite radio broadcasts (even ones in Spanish) as they happen, delivers number-coded prophecies while in trances, and can produce destructive white light from his eyes. Born and raised in Arkansas, Nichols knows the south. Two of his films, Shotgun Stories and Mud, were set in his home state. For Midnight Special, the filmmaker moved west to Texas, and for a very specific reason. Alton’s parents were part of a fanatical end-times cult, and because of the boy’s powers, cult leader Calvin Meyer proclaimed the boy a prophet and took Alton as his adoptive son.

So, why Texas? Because my own home state was well-known for David Koresh’s Branch Davidians near Waco. More recently the YFZ ranch, part of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, made headlines too. Religious fanaticism in the Lone Star state is just unfortunately easy to imagine.

The film begins as Alton’s real father, Roy, is attempting to secret his son out of the clutches of the religious sect with the help of his childhood friend, Lucas. Soon after the escape, the FBI raids the compound. They, too, are looking for Alton, because the strings of numbers the boy rattles off in his trance-like states are actually transmissions from top secret military satellites. The scenes of the FBI rounding up the faithful are evocative of the stories that were written in the aftermath of the YFZ raid, when 439 children were rescued after allegations of sexual abuse were reported to authorities.

The religious sect believes one of Alton’s divinations is the date – coming in just two days – and location of the end of the world, and they believe Alton will lead them all to the promised land.   Cult leader Calvin dispatches two trusted followers to find Alton, and a nationwide Amber Alert is also issued by police to locate the boy. Roy also believes something very special will happen to Alton at the appointed time and place, so he and Lucas embark on a frantic mission to meet up with Alton’s mother, Sarah, and get the boy to the predetermined location.

This cat-and-mouse game, while building suspense around what will actually happen when and if our heroes make it to their destination, is the most exciting experience I’ve had at the movies so far this year. Despite the ratcheting tension, Nichols employs a languid pace to tell his story. The style is more akin to a Terrence Malick film than a Michael Bay movie, making it more visually engaging and emotionally complex.

The comparison I made earlier to Close Encounters of the Third Kind is perhaps not in the way you might expect. It’s true that both movies craft a sort of wonder and awe with their respective other-worldly focuses, but in one way Midnight Special is the exact opposite. Roy Neary, the protagonist and father in Spielberg’s classic (you’ll note both fathers share the same first name) is ready, willing, and able to completely abandon his family in order to pursue the extraterrestrial obsession that haunts his every waking moment.

In Midnight Special, Nichols uses the sci-fi milieu to instead explore the unconditional love parents have for their child, and the lengths to which they are willing to go for his best interest. There is a scene late in the movie where Alton tells his father that Roy doesn’t need to worry about him anymore. “I’ll always worry about you, Alton. I like worrying about you. That’s the deal.” It’s one of many incredibly touching scenes that evinces the beauty of human connection. Midnight Special is, in fact, extraordinarily human.

I can’t think of any better actor to portray those qualities than Michael Shannon. As Roy, Shannon wears tenderness, heartbreak, and determination all over his face. The actor turns in a wonderfully complex performance, and he does it with a minimum of dialog. Shannon doesn’t need to say a lot to get his point across. He simply lives and breathes the character every second he is on screen. Kirsten Dunst is also excellent as Sarah. Her portrayal of a mother on the verge of losing her son forever is genuine and effecting. Child actor Jaeden Lieberher brings a sensitivity and intelligence to the role of Alton that is hard to overstate. If we don’t buy Alton as an exceptionally perceptive and special child, the movie crumbles. Lieberher delivers with a quiet performance that fits seamlessly with the hushed tone Nichols creates.

That incredibly rich tone of mystery and suspense is also aided by the exceptionally understated, but effective, special effects. This is a filmmaking team that understands how best to deploy computer generated effects. They are to aid the story, not overshadow it. Alton’s special abilities are rendered in expertly crafted short bursts. They never overstay their welcome. As such, the effects amaze the viewer each time they briefly appear.

There are some shortcomings to the film. Although Adam Driver does a fine job as NSA special agent Paul Sevier, his character is essentially a plot device to help move the story along when it needs a nudge. One scene stands out as particularly weak, when Paul stares at a white board with voluminous amounts of numbers and locations pertinent to his search for Alton. After a few minutes of pacing back and forth and mumbling to himself, Sevier has a non-descript “Aha!” moment and declares to his colleague, “I know where they’re going!” Sequences like this are few and far between and the rest of the quality storytelling make it easy to overlook them.

One of the reasons I chose to start writing about movies week in and week out was to discover just as much about myself as the movies I critiqued. What is it about cinema that so captures my individual imagination? What are the qualities of an effective movie that I hold in the highest regard? I’m beginning to see a pattern in my writing. Above all, I value moods and tones that permeate an entire experience, and admire the filmmakers capable of doing this well. There is no one particular mood or tone that’s better than another; I simply want to be enveloped in the movie I’m watching. Jeff Nichols is a master at building a cinematic world that is completely entrancing, and Midnight Special is a shining example of his abilities.

Why it got 4 stars:
 The few weaknesses of the movie diminish the overall effect only slightly. Midnight Special has an emotional aura about it that is wholly unique.

Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- In preparation for Midnight Special, I watched Nichols' first two movies, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter (I just couldn't fit Mud into my schedule, sorry to say). If you enjoy quality movies with a ton of heart, you owe it to yourself to see both. Especially Take Shelter. There is a very controversial ending that you will either love or hate. When I say ending, I'm talking about the last two minutes. Any movie that can provoke that strong of a reaction in so little time is doing something interesting.
- The last act of Midnight Special starts with a wallop I wasn't expecting. Ninety percent of the movie moves along at a quiet, contemplative pace, punctuated with bursts of action that make you sit up and take notice.