Quiet, lumpy Joel Edgerton (fourth movie I’ve seen him in, maybe I’ll recognize him next time?) marries sweet Ruth Negga (Ethiopian, of World War Z), they just want to be left alone with their kids and their auto repairs and home building and what not, but they’re arrested because they live in a racist Virginia shithole, and forced to move out of town. The NAACP hears about this and decides to use their case to challenge federal law, hires a shaky-looking local lawyer (comedian Nick Kroll), and Life sends photographer Michael Shannon, who gets them national attention. A slow-paced, good-natured movie with a happy ending – what’s not to like?
After Take Shelter, I’ll definitely sign up for another Jeff Nichols/Michael Shannon drama about impending doom. This one is maybe more ambitious, definitely more confusingly plotted, and has less well-defined characters and relationships. Shannon and childhood friend Joel Edgerton have kidnapped Shannon’s magic son Alton from a doomsday cult and with help from Shannon’s (ex-?)wife Kirsten Dunst and federal agent Adam Driver they take Alton to fulfill his destiny by ascending to Tomorrowland.
Pretty sure this was meant to evoke the string of psychic-child adventure stories in the late 1970’s: Firestarter (the novel, if not the film) and The Fury. In fact I was so busy trying to remember how Firestarter ends that I may have missed some details about the doomsday cult and why exactly they wanted Alton – or maybe they weren’t even sure of that themselves. If not an instant classic, at least a cool-looking, mysterious movie, full of great acting and shocking moments (I leapt when satellite parts rained down on the gas station). I always appreciate sci-fi stories that show glimpses of larger worlds and deeper mysteries than the film has the time or inclination to explain.
This counted as the kickoff to Cannes Month, since Nichols’ previous movie Mud played Cannes, and his second film of 2016 Loving is about to premiere there. Although I would’ve watched it anyway.
For some reason, the emotional core of this film seems to have gone missing — I can see where it’s supposed to reside, but the love Alton’s parents feel for him is oddly abstract, perhaps because E.T. seems more human than he does.
The bad guys trace [our heroes’ car] through an insurance bill left on a kitchen counter, because even Midnight Special’s sense of conspiracy is grounded in the commonplace. The only explicitly poetic line the movie allows itself is spoken by the cult’s neckless goon, played by character actor Bill Camp. Sitting in his truck, he says, “I was an electrician, certified in two states. What do I know of these things?” This is the most the viewer will ever learn about him. Midnight Special defines characters through what they can’t understand, contrasting fear of the unknown with faith in it, and flipping the supernatural into a metaphor for the everyday.
From J. Romney’s review intro:
Cinema has rarely felt so much like a son et lumière as it did in a brief period in the early ’80s, when suddenly shafts of light came shooting out of movie images, as if the screen had been slashed. It became a defining image of Steven Spielberg’s films — Close Encounters, E.T., and Poltergeist too, if you want to count that as one of his … In their purest and most glaring form, those shafts of light had something of the quality of angelic revelation about them. Certainly, you suspected that cinematographers such as Vilmos Zsigmond and Allen Daviau had taken a close look at certain academic religious paintings of the 19th century, or perhaps at Renaissance church sculpture, with their sheaves of marble emulating beams from the divine. At any rate, it came as a shock to get the impression from these films — and with such eye-searing intensity — that cinema was a matter of light streaming directly out of the screen, rather than just bounced off it. The motif was a powerful way of restoring, if not a holy, at least an authentically otherworldly dimension to cinema.
Great movie, not in the sense that I’d want to watch it over and over, but that the doomed feeling of the final scene has stuck with me intensely for the past two weeks. AV Club says the movie’s got an open-ended, ambiguous finale, but I didn’t see it that way. I see Michael Shannon and his family as unambiguously screwed.
Shannon (perfectly cast, his voice a Sling Blade croak, less manic than in Bug) is having apocalyptic dreams of oil-colored rain, bird swarms and terrible storms, becomes obsessed with building a survival shelter in the back yard, with food stocks and gas masks, at the expense of his job and personal relationships. Wife Jessica Chastain (“grace” in The Tree of Life) tries pretty hard, harder than most movie-wives, to understand and help her husband. But he blows the money they need for their hearing-impaired daughter Hannah’s corrective surgery, and she becomes less forgiving. Shannon also gets a helpful employee (Shea Whigham of Splinter, All The Real Girls) into trouble. Finally after he overreacts to a regular summer storm, he agrees to cool it for a while, and the family takes a quiet trip to the coast. Then the oily rain begins.
Adding to the mystery, Shannon’s mom (Kathy Baker, the sexy neighbor in Edward Scissorhands) has long-term psychological problems which began when she was his age. He visits her to compare notes, not-so-helpfully. No help either from brother Ray McKinnon or boss Robert Longstreet, and little from psych counselor LisaGay Hamilton.
R. Koehler in Cinema Scope says it “gives expression to an extremely nervous country” and that each Sundance audience member thought it expressed his own particular conspiracy theory. Nichols sounds like a smart, engaged writer/director from his interview. And I’d been wondering if he watched Todd Haynes’ Safe before making this – he did.