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ADVANCE: Midnight Special - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
ADVANCE: Midnight Special
Directing: A-
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A
Special Effects: A-

Midnight Special wastes no time with buildup, backstory or exposition: you pick up the pieces using the action taking place right in front of you. That's not to say there's no mystery, as there's a lot of that; it's what makes the movie great. But it opens with a father and son, along with the father's friend, on the run: they're in a hotel room, and the TV is turned on to local news about an abducted child. The two men take the young boy out to the car in the middle of the night. The young woman in the lobby sees them while watching the news, and calls the police.

It would be a disservice to the experience of this movie to tell much more than that, so I'll keep that to an absolute minimum. Suffice it to say that the title makes literal sense, although I keep wanting to call it Midnight Express -- an apropos title, given how these three spend so much time traveling exclusively at night. But Alton (an impressively subtle Jaeden Lieberher), the boy at the center of the story, is certainly special -- and in a way no boy is in other movies.

The comparisons to Close Encounters of the Third Kind go beyond just the quote in the promotional materials: "Close Encounters of a New Kind," says the New Republic. Director and writer Jeff Nichols, who also did the excellent Take Shelter (2011) and the very good Mud (2013), speaks to its influence openly. He was at the screening I attended last night, and while he said it was also influenced by the 1984 film Starman, Close Encounters had the biggest impact: "It's right there on the poster," he said, gesturing to the New Republic quote.

And indeed, the similarities are remarkable. Midnight Special won't be a classic the way Close Encounters of the Third Kind is, but their sensibilities have a large amount of crossover. What the characters are dealing with aren't quite the same, but the story plays out in a similar manner -- right down to Adam Driver, who is great and offers the slightest bit of comic relief with his NSA agent Paul Sevier. Both movies have investigating government agents with French names. Adam Driver doesn't use a French accent, though. (Spoiler alert.)

Midnight Special has a great cast across the board, starting with Michael Shannon as Alton's dad, Roy. Shannon must be Jeff Nichols's muse, because Nichols has made four movies and is in post-production on a fifth, and Shannon has been in all of them. Joel Edgerton is Lucas, Roy's childhood friend offering assistance getting Alton to where they're running to; Sam Shepard is the religious zealot who thinks Alton is their savior; and soon enough we meet Alton's mom, Sarah, played by . . . is that Kirsten Dunst? It is! Holy shit, how old is she now? She's 33. She actually looks a bit older in this movie. But even 33 is perfectly reasonable for a mother of an 8-year-old boy.

As the movie goes on, both the mystery and the tension mounts. There's definitely something supernatural about this child. Shepard's preacher evidently raised him for most of his life, but it's his biological parents who are trying to protect him. There's a specific place he needs to be on a specific day. The government knows the boy has largely classified information, hence their interest. How this came to be is never made clear. But a lot is never made clear. This may be frustrating for some, but for me it enhanced the movie. Too many directors go out of their way to answer every question. Nichols is refreshingly the opposite.

That said, there is a Big Reveal near the end, something that explains a lot -- but then brings with it a slew of its own new questions. It's the one big special effects moment, as the effects are otherwise used sparingly but effectively. It could be argued that by the end, Nichols shows us more than we need to see. Audiences are divided on this, as well as the final shot, which is reminiscent of the split second that ended Take Shelter, suggesting things were never quite as we thought they were all along.

If taken literally, Midnight Special is straight up preposterous. If taken as a metaphor for allowing your children to become their true selves, it works incredibly well. This is how Nichols works, in layered themes that go just deep enough. But he allows them to work through the action of the story and the performances of the actors. To say this movie is never dull would be an understatement. It's not even horror and I jumped about an inch off my chair at least three times. The story is just too absorbing to see these sudden turns of events coming.

Once it opens, this will be the movie to see. Midnight Special opens locally in Seattle at the Egyptian Theatre on April 1.

Jaeden Lieberher is MIDNIGHT SPECIAL.

Overall: A-
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