Movies come in two sizes these days. You got your juggernaut, nine-figure-budgeted, sure-fire box-office dominators on one hand, and your boutique, art-house, critical darlings on the other. That’s the common, well-founded complaint of grown-up moviegoers who like to just be flat-out entertained sometimes without having the cudgel of pop culture icons slammed repeatedly onto their brains.
This has been true for a while to some degree about American cinema in general, but it’s especially true of science fiction films. What gets lost when superhero epics and space opera installments take over the nation’s multiplexes are the mid-level movies with the resources to spin a visually compelling tale and the brains to tell an intellectually compelling one. Now the choice, sci-fi-wise, is generally between the latest pre-sold franchise episode with a colon in its name or some micro-budgeted mindbender with a single-word title (“Primer,” “Coherence,” “Chronicle”).
Which brings us to “Midnight Special,” a movie that was financed by a major Hollywood studio, Warner Brothers, and directed by an indie-film darling, Jeff Nichols. It’s the best of both worlds: a ripping character-driven yarn with action, suspense, and even some snazzy special effects. I have this terrible feeling, though, that as a money-maker, it’s going to sink like a stone. I hope I’m proven wrong, but it just feels like not enough people are in the habit of going to movies like this anymore.
“Midnight Special” has a 1970s feel, with some of the DNA of the 1975 Disney film “Escape to Witch Mountain” in its blood. The story centers on a young boy, Alton Meyer, who has been snatched from a religious cult by his biological father Roy (Michael Shannon) and an accomplice (Joel Edgerton). Alton has special powers, often triggered by exposure to bright sunlight, that involve glowing eyes and strange babblings and occasional gas station explosions. The cult leader (Sam Shepard) wants him back. The feds want to bring him in for study. And Roy just wants to keep his son free and alive.
Shannon, who played Superman’s archenemy General Zod in “Man of Steel” (and cameoed as his corpse in “Batman v Superman” just last week), has appeared in all four of Nichols’ films. He’s a treasure, and fortunately he seems to have opted to cash his supervillain paycheck and resume putting his off-kilter but empathetic demeanor to good use. (He’ll also be appearing as The King himself in “Elvis & Nixon” later this month.)
The rest of the cast, which also includes Kirsten Dunst and Adam Driver (in the “Close Encounters” Francois Truffaut role), is able enough, but a movie like this rises or falls based on the juvenile casting, and young Jaeden Lieberher steals the show. He’s creepy and tragic, messianic and mundane, in turn, sometimes within the same scene. Lieberher held his own against Bill Murray in “St. Vincent,” and he handles a lot of intense stuff here as a boy whose secrets threaten to destroy him and those around him.
Nichols’ previous movies—“Shotgun Stories,” “Mud,” and “Take Shelter”– have had the same genuinely Southern feel as David Gordon Green’s early work. And “Midnight Special” has a similar authenticity of place as Roy hurtles across Texas and Louisiana trying to stay one step ahead of his pursuers. It also has a sense of authorship that comes from the all-too-rare instance of a major studio allowing a director to have final cut. Nichols has said that his only demands were casting Shannon and having final cut, and a paltry budget by studio terms, a reported $18 million, made this possible.
But it’ll take a lot more than $18 million in ticket sales to make “Midnight Special” stand out on Warners’ ledger, considering that’s what “BvS” earned for the studio about every nine hours on its opening weekend. They’re doing a platform release on this one, slowly expanding it around the country and opening it in Portland at one theater, Cinema 21, initially. The goal, of course, is to allow the movie to find an audience, but I wonder if it doesn’t mark it somehow as “art house” fare, turning off some portion of the wide audience it deserves to find. Putting a full-fledged marketing campaign behind an $18 million movie is a lot more expensive than relying on word-of-mouth (or, God forbid, critics!), but it might pay off more in the end. We’ll see.
Regardless, if you’re the sort who gripes about the lack of smart, grown-up, genre filmmaking, you have a moral duty to buy a ticket to this movie, and to tell other people about it—in other words, put your money where your mouth is and prove that we can be allowed to have nice things. Shine your ever-lovin’ light on that.
(“Midnight Special” opens Friday, April 1, at Cinema 21.)
Rated PG-13, 111 minutes. Grade: A-