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Midnight Special

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/31/16 20:38:34

"Turn On Your Headlight"
5 stars (Awesome)

Over the course of his first three films, the increasingly ambitious dramas “Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter” and “Mud,” director Jeff Nichols has more than staked a claim for himself as one of the most interesting of the new crop of indie filmmakers, With his latest work, “Midnight Special,” he takes his biggest artistic swing to date in terms of size, scope and ambition and pretty much knocks it out of the park.

As this is one of those films that is at its most effective when one goes into it knowing as little as possible, I will be as oblique as possible in describing it. It opens with an Amber Alert reporting that a child named Alton (Jacob Lieberher) has been kidnapped by Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon). This is technically true but there is more to it than that—Alton is Roy’s son and he has spirited him away from the religious cult where they had been living and whose leader (San Shepard) became the kid’s adoptive father as part of their rules. As it turns out, Alton is a very special boy and, with the help of an old friend (Joel Edgerton), Roy is determined to get the kid to his mother (Kirsten Dunst), who abandoned the cult a couple of years earlier, and then to a mysterious rendezvous point. Hot in pursuit of the child are members of the cult and the FBI, both of whom have their own important uses for Alton and the powers that he may possess.

Wild horses could not drag any more of the plot out of me—I fear that I have already said too much as is. That said, this is an absolutely spellbinding film that works as a nifty variation of the road movie (because of a condition that Alton suffers from that forces him to avoid sunlight, most of the driving is done at night), a nifty paranoid thriller with enough trippy moments to fuel a couple of Richard Kelly movies and a quietly powerful meditation on the notion of belief and having the courage of one’s convictions, no matter what the cost. Interestingly, though the does have a ticking clock element to it, Nichols prefers a more leisurely approach to the material that allows him to focus on the kind of quiet, character-driven moments that he excels at and which are too often given short shrift in films of this type. He also has enough confidence in his abilities as a storyteller to take the risk of beginning his story essentially in the middle and trusting audiences to follow along as he subtly teases out the backstory here and there. This is his third time collaborating with Michael Shannon and he knows exactly how to use that actor’s oddball persona, which can shift from lovable oddball to downright terrifying, to maximum effect. He also gets strong performances from the rest of the cast, which also includes Adam Driver as an NSA adviser who unexpectedly finds himself in the middle of things at a key point.

From its fascinating setup to its sure-to-be-debated finale, “Midnight Special” is a incredibly effective work that takes any number of bold gambles and makes most of them pay off in spades. Although the film is by no means a mega-budget behemoth, it is an obvious step up in size and scale for Jeff Nichols and as a result, those who have cherished his smaller early works may worry that the original touch that made those films so interesting may have been lost along the way as has often been the case when when a leading voice in indie cinema goes to work for the studios. Happily, not only is that not the case, I would suggest that this is actually his best and most complete work to date and I am now more eager than ever to see what he comes up with next.

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