Midnight Special (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : It deserves its odd title

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Reminiscent of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), “Starman” (1984), and TV series “The X-files”, “Midnight Special” virtually puts us right in the middle of its ongoing situation we gradually come to grasp along its narrative. This small but mesmerizing SF thriller movie is constantly intriguing as juggling its thought-provoking matters of faith and parental love, and it surely helps that there are a number of strong visual moments to linger on your mind after it is over.

The movie begins with the quietly tense opening sequencing which slowly reveals the urgent circumstance of Roy (Michael Shannon) and his young son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). Along with Alton, Roy recently ran away from a religious cult group in Texas, and now they have to be more careful because Roy is being wanted by the state police after ‘kidnapping’ his son. Thanks to Roy’s old childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), they have so far managed to avoid the police search, and we come to learn that Roy is going to take Alton to a certain location outside Texas because he believes that his son needs to be there for something big to happen on a specific day.

Roy is not crazy at all, for Alton is a special boy with remarkable gifts. While avoiding daylight, Alton usually wears swimming goggles during his nighttime mainly because of his eyes which can emit light beams with some telekinetic power, and that is just one of his many uncanny abilities which certainly impressed many other people besides Roy and Lucas. Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), the old leader of Roy’s religious cult group, wants to get back Alton by any means necessary, and he instructs two of his followers to track down Roy and Alton, shortly before government agents raid in the middle of another night service at Meyer’s community ranch.

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While Meyer and his followers are thoroughly investigated by government agents, an NSA analyst named Sevier (Adam Driver) appears, and it turns out that the numerical sequences used at Meyer’s night service as a sort of divine messages from Alton are actually pieces of secret government information from one of those military satellites in the sky. As getting to know more about Alton from Meyer and his followers, Sevier and other government agents become more interested in Alton, and they surely want to get him as much as Meyer.

Meanwhile, Roy, Alton, and Lucas continue their risky journey on the road. When they need to change their vehicle due to an unexpected incident, they are fortunately helped by a former cult member, but that leads to another trouble to jeopardize their plan. They later visit where Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) has lived since she left the cult, and she soon joins them while being well aware of that this may be her last time with her son.

As the movie steadily moves toward its destination, the director/writer Jeff Nichols keeps engaging us through his deft control of mood and storytelling. There are notable plot gaps and holes here and there throughout the film, but it confidently takes its big steps with considerable technical prowess. The cinematographer Adam Stone did a fabulous job of capturing wide, beautiful Southern landscapes on the screen, and these gorgeous location shots are tinged with nervous ambience by David Wango’s atmospheric score. The special effects during several key scenes in the film are succinctly used for generating exact dramatic effects as intended, and the movie also gives us a terse but effective vehicle action sequence which looks and feels a lot more realistic than those overblown ones in The Fast and the Furious movies.

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Nichols also draws terrific performances from his cast members. Michael Shannon, who appeared in all of Nichols’ three previous films, effortlessly exudes his character’s firm determination driven by love and faith, and he and Jaeden Lieberher, a young actor who held his own place besides Bill Murray in “St. Vincent” (2014), are convincing in the depiction of their characters’ strong father and son relationship. While Joel Edgerton, whom we will see again in Nichols’ upcoming film “Loving” (2016), is equally good in his calm, focused performance, Kirsten Dunst and Adam Driver have each own moment to shine as two substantial supporting characters in the film, and Sam Shepard is suitably cast as a shady cult leader although he appears only in a few early scenes.

Since he made a notable debut with “Shotgun Stories” (2007), Nichols has been one of the most interesting American filmmakers during recent years. I was surprised by his intense, powerful family drama in “Shotgun Stories”, and then I was impressed more as being struck by his next film “Take Shelter” (2011), which still grabbed me hard and tight when I happened to revisit it two months ago. His third film “Mud” (2012) was a haunting story about love, friendship, and redemption, and it also had one of the best performances in Matthew McConaughey’s career.

“Midnight Special” is another superlative work from Nichols, and it has grown on me since I watched it several days ago. I felt curious and intrigued during my viewing, and I still vividly remember many of its awe-inspiring highlights I will let you behold for yourselves. If you are looking for a SF film depending on ideas and characters rather than mindless actions, I think you will enjoy this movie a lot – and you will see that it does deserve its odd title.

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