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Midnight Special

Jeff Nichols is one of my favorite currently working directors.  His latest film, “Midnight Special,” is a sci fi thriller, and also a chase flick, and, underneath, a film about family bonds.

It opens with a kidnapping: Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton and a special little boy are on the run, both from a fundamentalist cult and the FBI in a primer-gray muscle car. As the story unfolds, we learn more about this boy’s special abilities, and about why the trio are running, and where they’re trying to go.

The film doesn’t waste much time explaining things. The pace is breathless, as our heroes have little or no time to stop and rest, or talk about everything that’s happening.  It’s all happening too fast for them, and really, for us as well. At some point, you either get frustrated with everything that remains unexplained, or you just go along for the ride, or both.

“Midnight Special” has a lot in common with movies like “Donnie Darko” and most especially “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” movies in which the director gives us puzzle pieces, and a lot of fun in watching is trying to piece them together before it’s all explained at the end.  (Donnie Darko’s biggest problem is that it’s pretty much impossible.)  But while Nichols is busy feeding us pieces at the beginning, by the end, he seems to have lost interest in putting them together in a coherent way. This is most evident when Adam Driver decodes the coordinates that Michael Shannon has decoded, and knows where they were headed.  But while we’ve been repeatedly shown the coordinates and basically invited to try and decode them for ourselves, the code is never explained.  We never see what Driver and Shannon see.  It feels like a bullshit code, a plot device to get us where Nichols wants to take us.  It’s a disappointing cheat. Nichols has said in interviews that he was never that concerned with connecting the dots.  If that’s the case, he shouldn’t have put the dots so prominently in his script.  It’s like taking us to a baseball field, handing us a bat and a ball and a glove, and then deciding that oh wait, you’re actually there to play checkers.

OK, so there’s 200 words about what I don’t like about “Midnight Special.”  What do I like? Literally everything else. I love the storytelling style, which is light on exposition and heavy on atmosphere. As always, I love Michael Shannon. Nichols effectively captures the sense of wonder and gravity of “Close Encounters.”  It is compelling as a movie about a family — especially a father and son — dealing with bizarre circumstances that don’t change the basic dynamics of their relationship.  “You don’t need to worry about me,” the nine-year-old says to his father.  “I like worrying about you. I am always going to worry about you. That’s the deal.”   The ending is puzzling and wondrous at the same time; I’m not sure I could have figured out what Nichols was up to without reading interviews (hint: the entire concept of the film started with a baby monitor) which I guess makes it like Donnie Darko.  But I’m not sure it matters; Nichols has succeeded in making a tremendously entertaining film, in spite of all the unsatisfying loose ends and unexplained bits.

 

 

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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