Tuesday, April 5, 2016

It’s Just Something He Does: Midnight Special

Michael Shannon, with Jaeden Lieberher, in Midnight Special. (Photo: Ben Rothstein)

We’re all aware of the writer’s maxim that says it’s a terrible faux-pas to have characters telling each other things they already know, as a means of getting this information to the audience. Hollywood seems to employ this clumsy tactic too often, as if paranoid that audiences will stand up and walk out if plot details and character motivations – especially in a genre film context, where weird shit happens all the time – aren’t spoon-fed explicitly to them. Writer-director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) seems to have crafted Midnight Special as a fierce rebellion against this dumbing-down of popular cinema. This is a science fiction story about a father and son that traffics in emotion, not exposition, and it’s all the richer for it.

The plot of Midnight Special, such as it is, is doled out piecemeal. Nichols opens in medias res, showing Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) looking hard and exhausted in a motel room, shoving guns into bags as a newscaster on TV warns of the recent kidnapping of an eight-year-old boy. We see the boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), wearing goggles and earmuffs, as Roy picks him up and leaves. They’re on the run. We learn that a religious cult, based in a Texas commune called “the Ranch,” wants him back. We meet an NSA analyst, Paul (Adam Driver), who gives us our first hints that Alton has extraordinary abilities. We’re not quite sure who to trust, or what Alton can do. Alton is reunited with his mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), who joins them on their journey to get the boy to a specific spot at a specific time. It’s E.T. meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind, handled with a tense efficiency that still manages to echo the Spielbergian wonder of its inspirations, even if it sometimes moves too quickly to indulge in the lump-in-the-throat moments that make those films so special.

This is more like the SF of Ray Bradbury, showing us a small slice of a larger story (we come in at essentially the third act, making the whole film an extended denouement), where the core themes – fatherhood, belief, determination, and attachment – are played at the same level as the tactile realities of the story and the people in it. Midnight Special doesn't ever explain itself, and it doesn't have to; the quiet looks shared between characters and the terse economy of the film's editing communicate more than expository dialogue ever could (at one point, editor Julie Monroe cuts from a character being threatened at gunpoint to the harsh ripping sound of duct tape as Lucas boards up a window – the violence of that encounter never shown or returned to, merely implied by the simple violence of the cut itself). Roy, Sarah, Lucas, and Paul don't understand Alton – what he is, what he can do, and why – but they never ask him to explain himself, the way you may want them to. These questions are not the real mystery (although they do keep you glued to the screen in case any detail does trickle out). They're representations of the mystery of child rearing, which is more fantastical and true and unsolvable than any sci-fi potboiler plot.

Joel Edgerton, Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher and Kirsten Dunst in Midnight Special. (Photo: Ben Rothstein)

Nichols hints at traditional plot beats – conflict between Roy and Lucas, reconciliation between husband and wife, vengeful reclaiming of the stolen son – but subverts them each time at the first opportunity. Roy and Lucas rub each other raw because they are frightened, and both care deeply about keeping Alton safe. This doesn't change, so there's no clichéd betrayal or falling out; Lucas is in for the long haul. Roy and Sarah are too preoccupied with Alton to think about repairing their relationship, and this feels correct – the story would be too muddled that way. Their focus is on Alton, and so is ours. There's (thankfully) no scene in which Roy straps up and guns his way through a military facility in search of his son – Alton arranges his own escape, and it happens without destruction or bloodshed.

Alton, in fact, is the character most often in control and who has the most agency in any given situation. Jaeden Lieberher doesn't play him like a Damien or any other creepy supernatural boy: he's just a child, who knows as little about his abilities as everyone else, and is learning about them as we do. While reading a Superman comic, he asks Lucas what kryptonite is, and it's not Nichols waving some heavy-handed foreshadowing in your face – it's the simple curiosity of an eight-year-old kid who's never had the chance to read a comic book before. If there is a “kryptonite” in Midnight Special, it's Alton himself, who corrodes at the heart of his parents (and us) with his sweetness and his hard-earned, heartbreaking maturity. The film could be read as a metaphor for raising a special-needs child, in the way Alton relates more to technology than he does to people, and the way raising him tore Roy and Sarah apart. The character of Alton speaks to Nichols’ fears as a new father, and the strength he clearly takes in believing in his own son, no matter what the cost might be.

If I've given the impression that Midnight Special is sparing with its effects scenes, and keeps the story human and tangible until the supernatural rudely invades it, then I've done my job. The sci-fi stuff happens early, so it keeps you on your toes. But like Close Encounters, when the extraordinary occurs, it’s handled with a sense of wonder – and it takes a toll on those who witness it. Some, like the former Ranch member who offers the family shelter early on, are weak in its presence, and cause harm as a result. Others, like Roy and Lucas and Sarah, are strong, and stand tall in the unnatural light that pours from Alton’s eyes. They’re strong for him, the way only a parent can be strong for their child. Alton asks Roy if he’s scared, and Roy whispers that he is – but he sticks by his son until the end. Even Paul, whose curiosity and open-mindedness make him the only government official in the film who actually wants to meet Alton, is deeply affected by their interaction. Paul, like Lucas, is an ally simply because he’s a good person, who wants to help a little boy get back to where he belongs. The entire cast is so wonderfully natural it almost seemed unnecessary to mention their work; they inhabit these characters with strong and focused emotional clarity. They elevate the material even when, in the case of Dunst or Driver, they have precious little screentime to work with.

Nichols’ true achievement with Midnight Special is crafting a mystery that asks a new question with every answer it gives, and still manages not to alienate you or leave you stranded. You’re constantly engaged, and constantly eager to see what comes next. Nichols relies on cinematographer Adam Stone and composer David Wingo to complete the emotional circuit – Wingo’s beautiful, understated score carrying us through long, dialogue-free sequences, and Stone’s gorgeous visual work making the American South a character of its own (including a breathtaking scene involving a sunrise). I can’t say yet how history will regard this film, but it’s a distinct pleasure that science fiction with this amount of emotional intelligence – and respect for the power and craft of cinema – still finds a niche in modern theatres.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism

No comments:

Post a Comment