Jeff Nichols fashions three-quarters of a terrific movie with Midnight Special, a slow burn science fiction thriller. The rest is merely gripping, which isn't a bad problem to have.
Midnight Special achieved near-cult status even before its release, thanks to Nichols' rapid ascension among filmmaking ranks with Take Shelter, Mud and Shotgun Stories in his first three outings. Produced in relative secrecy two years ago, Midnight Special's categorization as sci-fi got fanboys buzzing, especially with casting Michael Shannon's otherworldly presence.
Heightening the anticipation was a peek-a-boo distribution strategy from Warner Bros., moving back the release date, opening in only a handful of theaters then adding dates like Tampa Bay's at the last minute. It appeared that Warner didn't know exactly what to do with Midnight Special, perhaps too artful to be sold as a blockbuster yet too popcorn to grab the art house crowd.
As finally delivered, Nichols' movie comes as close to successfully straddling that divide as one can be expected. Midnight Special doesn't lean much upon big-bang moments, so when they do occur our senses are jangled rather than numbed by repetition. Key details are loaded into simple phrases that by themselves carry little or no weight. Yet connected to what we've seen earlier, they quietly detonate character and plot development.
The story is infinitely spoilable, so I'll take extra care. Nichols' opening scene establishes an inscrutable tone and piano-wire tenseness, as two men (Shannon, Joel Edgerton) go through the suspicious motions of fleeing from a motel room with a young boy. Too calm and cooperative to be a hostage, the boy's stranger side is gradually exposed, along with the men's intentions, as a manhunt ensues.
Shannon plays the search's target, Roy Tomlin, who has a personal connection to the boy Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), who possesses telekinetic powers for starters. Roy is determined to take Alton to a certain place by a certain date for something monumental. Armageddon? A terrorist attack? A close encounter of some kind? Each possibility is dangled for our curiosity, as Alton's destiny is revealed.
Midnight Special becomes a hot pursuit puzzler, with Alton chased by a national security adviser (Adam Driver), minions of a religious cult leader (Sam Shepard) and perhaps another party. Motives aren't discussed, only urgency, which is all a nail-biter truly needs. At the same time, Nichols' screenplay also plays Roy close to the vest; we can't be certain that his protective nature is as it appears.
Midway through Midnight Special, the sense of watching a minor classic unfold was creeping in. Then its grip slowly loosened, as Alton's mother (Kirsten Dunst) muddles the core dynamic and a too-literal representation of what's going on takes shape. It's nothing fatal but magic-busting just the same. A second viewing may even smooth over the rough patches. As one of our most original filmmakers working today, Nichols deserves that chance.
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