Berlinale 2016: Jeff Nichols' 'Midnight Special' Never Reveals Too Much
by Alex Billington
February 13, 2016
Right from the start, this film is already moving. A father, his son and another protector are on the run. The young boy they're watching over seems to have some sort of special powers that even he doesn't understand. We never learn what exactly his powers are, or how he used them before they had to go on the run. Instead, the film focuses on this particular moment in time when they make sure to get him to where he needs to go. Jeff Nichols' Midnight Special is a solid sci-fi thriller with big ideas hidden within. It's not really a studio movie (produced by Warner Bros) as much as it is another stellar Jeff Nichols film with studio sensibilities.
Midnight Special stars Jaeden Lieberher as Alton, a boy with special sci-fi powers - his eyes light up like flashlights, and he can release small EMPs, control almost anything powered by electricity, and occasionally manipulate objects. His father is played by Michael Shannon and he's joined by Joel Edgerton as the two armed-men taking Alton wherever he needs/wants to go in order to fulfill his prophecy. None of this is ever explained, that's not Jeff Nichols' style. He prefers to keep things minimal, focus on the story at hand, let the script and dialogue reveal tidbits as things continue to move along. He's one of the only filmmakers capable of pulling this off without the film feeling reductive or bland. And it's just as effective again here.
There's a very strong emotional core in the film that keeps things centered around Alton, and the love his parents have for him even though he's different. They're not trying to figure out how to make him fit in, they're not sending him to be re-educated or studied, they're protecting him and believing in his abilities. This only just scratches the surface of all that's going on in Midnight Special. One of the subplots involves a religious cult that has started worshiping things he has said as scripture. It's a nice reference to religion and how it works (anything that seems "holy" becomes scripture which when taught by a leader gains followers). Again, none of this is explained but it's all there in the subtext of the script, a natural part of the film's story.
It all comes down to - where is this leading? Why does he have these powers? The film's climax is a MAJOR moment, the kind of Spielberg-esque moment we rarely see anymore. That's not a spoiler because nothing is fully revealed beyond a few key visual clues. This film relies heavily on the mystery, the ambiguity of the world we live in, and how we don't/won't understand everything. But we can be awe-struck by it. We can appreciate the beauty of it. This is what Nichols excels at - making us think about big ideas, the possibility of what's real, without ever spelling things out. Midnight Special is another outstanding film from Jeff Nichols (though it's not better than Take Shelter), and I can't wait to start talking about the end with everyone else.
Alex's Berlinale 2016 Rating: 8 out of 10
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