The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Midnight Special

Midnight Special is the kind of picture Steven Spielberg might have made in the 1980s if he were a darker person. There are elements that draw from E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind – along with other sci-fi stories from the era – yet the themes are much more spiritual, and some of the story's undercurrents are edgier. Director Jeff Nichols (Mud) has crafted a movie that I suspect reveals new layers upon repeat viewing. This is smart, substantive science-fiction.

Michael Shannon plays Roy, a man who has seemingly kidnapped a young boy named Alton (St. Vincent's Jaden Lieberher) from a religious cult run by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard). Together with friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Roy and Alton travel the back roads of the South by night, with the kid wearing swimming goggles and reading comic books by flashlight in the backseat. Gradually, we learn that things are not quite what they seem. Alton is Roy's son, and some unusual abilities he possesses have made Meyer and his congregation believe that he is their Savior. There's a rush to get the boy to safety, i.e. away from Meyer's pursuing henchmen. On the way to a secret destination, Roy stops to meet up with the boy's estranged mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), all while being tracked by FBI agents and an expert from the National Security Agency (Adam Driver).

Much has been left out of that plot synopsis. A big part of Midnight Special's hypnotic appeal is that it doles out pieces of the puzzle gradually, so that you wait with anticipation for each new bit of information that makes the big picture clearer. In fact, for the first 20 minutes, you don't even realize you're watching a science-fiction film. When it abruptly kicks into otherworldly high gear, you can hardly wait to find out what's happening and what it all means. Such an approach can be tricky. Reveal things too slowly and the audience loses interest. Do it too quickly and the mystery evaporates. Nichols paces things just about right, so that as soon as you digest one plot revelation, the next one arrives soon after.

The film is intentionally vague on some points. It wants to challenge you. That is mostly exciting. In some moments, when you want more explanation, it is frustrating. But even that frustration is part of what makes Midnight Special so enthralling. Nichols is wise enough to let you, the viewer, determine what the most important things mean. His interest is not in telling you what to think; it's in getting you to think for yourself, to do your own analysis based on whatever is already inside of you.

Midnight Special is, in its occasionally gritty way, about faith – faith that there is something beyond this life, watching us and caring about us. The characters in the movie who are shown the genuine meaning of Alton's powers have faith, and subsequently feel confidence in their direction. It gives them purpose and meaning. Those who do not have the faith, or try to manipulate it for selfish reasons, are repeatedly foiled. They are confused and lacking in compassion. Nichols never beats you over the head with any particular message, but there's no denying that the film is implying that having faith in some sort of higher power brings a unique sense of contentedness that can't be found anywhere else. We talk a lot these days about “faith-based films.” That label is applied to pictures that address specifically Christian ideals (i.e. Gods Not Dead 2 and Miracles From Heaven). Midnight Special isn't about any particular ideology so much as it's about how sincere faith shapes one's actions. On a deeper level, the actions of Meyer suggest the ways in which faith can also be corrupted or exploited. (If anything, the movie could have done even more with his character.)

Michael Shannon gives the latest in a string of remarkable performances (catch him in last year's 99 Homes and The Night Before if you haven't already) as Roy. The actor's trademark quiet intensity is a perfect fit for a character who knows he has to be dead serious about his mission. Joel Edgerton makes a great mirror to him. Whereas Roy approaches what they're doing from an emotional level, Lucas is the nuts-and-bolts logic guy, always trying to figure out the most sensible move. And as Alton, Jaden Lieberher makes a tricky role work. The kid's abilities might have come off corny with a less credible child actor.

Midnight Special kind of feels like the section in E.T. when the government agents are all chasing after Elliot and the alien, but stretched out to feature length and with the possibility of doom amplified. You probably won't understand everything on the first viewing, but you'll likely understand enough to make you want to go back and watch it again. A provocative science-fiction film can ask for no higher compliment.

( 1/2 out of four)

Blu-Ray Features:

Midnight Special comes to Blu-ray on June 21. An UltraViolet digital copy comes included.

The bonus features are short, but meaningful. “The Unseen World” features Jeff Nichols discussing the real-life inspirations for the film, which are rooted in his own fears as the parent of a young child. He explains how the story was shaped, as well as some of the ideas he hopes viewers will consider as they watch.

Also here are five character-based shorts in which Nichols and the actors explore the people who populate this story. Certain ideas that are almost subliminal in the movie are expanded upon by the director, which helps to enhance one's appreciation of the work. Even if they only run a couple minutes apiece, these segments are valuable in engaging with the movie more fully.

Picture and sound quality on the Blu-ray are first-rate.

Midnight Special is rated PG-13 for some violence and action. The running time is 1 hour and 52 minutes.

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