Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Midnight Special

The Midnight Special (2016) is a science-fiction thriller, rather poorly written with a narrative that makes very little sense.  The director, Jeff Nichols, however, invests his relatively slender plot-line with a gloomy sense of portentousness and importance that the subject matter doesn't warrant -- the acting is uniformly first-rate and the film is effectively staged with the outcome that the viewer may well be led to conclude that there is more to this film than meets the eye.  The disproportion between the somewhat tawdry narrative and the complex and gravely serious manner in which the narrative is presented is intriguing in itself and makes the film worth seeing.

A little boy is inexplicably found to have magical powers.  These powers include preternatural wisdom and an ability to use his eyes as 1000-watt searchlights. (The film's principle special effect is a blinding radiance emitted by the child's eyes, beams of light that seem to cause small earthquakes and that can, even, create expanding shock waves like the blast of a nuclear weapon.)  The boy is thought to be Satan by a religious cult living somewhere in west Texas, the community into which this Holy One has been born. The sinister forces embodied in our Department of Defense have also caught wind of this phenomenon and, of course, want to "weaponize" the boy's Klieg-light eyes.  Complicating the situation is the fact that the child is, apparently, allergic to sunlight -- ordinary sunlight seems to have a deadly effect on him, hence the scenes at the beginning of the film of motel rooms entirely armored by duct-taped cardboard against any encroachment of natural light.  The boy's father, played with grim resolve by Michael Shannon, has snatched the boy from the religious nuts who are led by the haggard Sam Shepherd.  Shepherd is harassed by the FBI who load his followers (they are like the Branch Davidians) onto school buses to be interrogated by the authorities about the boy.  The religious cultists dispatch two righteous but deadly "avenging angels" to hunt down the boy and, presumably, kill him.  At the same time, the DOD is pursuing the boy as well.  Accordingly, the film follows the classical conventions of the double-chase -- Shannon and the child are being chased by both law enforcement and the sinister assassins of the religious sect, a cult that seems to have invested its faith in the recitation of geographic coordinates.  Shannon is assisted by Joel Edgerton, the go-to actor when it comes to jug-eared MP types -- here he plays a highway patrolman recruited by Shannon to help in the escape cross-country with the dying child.  (Along the way, the fugitives pick up the boy's earthly mother, one of the cult-members played with Virgin Mary overtones by Kirsten Dunst -- her part is underwritten, however, and she is mostly wasted in the role.  She seems to have been cast because her Nordic beauty is so great that she looks good without any make-up.)  Midway through the movie, the boy's aversion to sunlight is somehow overcome and he begins to flourish.  At the climax of the film, all pursuing forces more or less converge and the boy's laser eye-balls reveal a world "above our world" -- a vision of a elaborate futuristic structures, something like celestial freeway overpasses hovering over the brackish salt marshes of west Florida.  None of this makes any sense but the film has the courage of its convictions and many impressive scenes.  Adam Driver, ubiquitous in American films, appears as a bemused NSA researcher -- he's the closest thing to comic relief in this rather dour movie and is compulsively watchable. 

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