Friday, April 29, 2016

Midnight Special

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL          A-                   
USA  (111 mi)  2016  ‘Scope  d:  Jeff Nichols              Official site

Holy shit!  Jeff Nichols has made a John Carpenter film.  While a genre film in every sense of the word, this is an extremely well-constructed and thought-provoking sci-fi film, and the first studio movie made by this otherwise well-known indie director of films like Shotgun Stories (2007), Take Shelter (2011), and Mud (2012), made for a modest $18 million dollars, perhaps following on the footsteps of Take Shelter that anticipates a coming apocalypse.  Right from the outset, the film has a stunning opening, where we discover a frail, young 8-year old boy reading Superman comics by flashlight under a white bedsheet while wearing earphones and blue swim goggles, but we’re in the middle of an unraveling event witnessing two heavily armed men sneaking the boy out of a dive motel in Texas where the windows have been completely sealed by cardboard and tape, finding their way into a customized muscle car as a television news report simultaneously runs an Amber Alert about a missing boy, observed by the motel clerk, matching the descriptions of the men getting into the car.  As they head out onto the open highway, with the boy continuing to read comic books by flashlight, a John Carpenter pulsating piano motif leads to radio reports identifying the car and license plate number, forcing them to veer onto an alternate path down more desolate country roads in the dark of night, with the driver putting on night vision gear, switching off all the car lights, traveling full speed into the abyss, which leads to the opening credits, Midnight Special - Trailer 1 [HD] - YouTube (1:48).  Immediately, with viewers still completely in the dark, you get the idea that some major event is taking place, but the calmness of the boy and his familiarity with the men suggest they pose him no danger.  What’s really going on and why remains shrouded in secrecy, as the director is in no hurry to reveal any backstory, doling out only bits and pieces of a building storyline as the film progresses, often filling in the details only after events have occurred, where part of the thrill is being deftly taken along for the ride.

Michael Shannon plays Roy Tomlin, portrayed by the news media as a ruthless kidnapper dragging Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) between cheap hotels with authorities in hot pursuit before finding a safe house.  But appearances are misleading, as Roy turns out to be the child’s father, accompanied by longtime personal friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), who we learn later happens to be a Texas state trooper.  Due to the severity of their mission, both look like hardened characters who are risking their lives trying to protect this kid, who can hear radio and satellite transmissions in his head, possessing unearthly supernatural powers, yet remains, at heart, just a sweet kid, who leads a nocturnal existence as his powers are diminished by the sunlight.  We also get a glimpse of where they’re coming from, as Tomlin and his son are running from a communal ranch of religious extremists in Texas headed by Sam Shepard as Calvin Meyer, a cult leader that assumes power by legally adopting the children of his followers, including Alton who was stripped from his father, where the group considers the boy a prophet and a messiah, resembling the dress and manner of the Fundamentalist Mormon group known as FLDS seen in Amy Berg’s Prophet's Prey (2015), especially the subsequent images of the FBI politely rounding them all up in busses for individual interviews regarding their chosen one, a chilling reminder of images of Texas law enforcement and child welfare officials in similar raids on the FLDS Church’s YFZ Ranch in 2008 after suspecting sexual assaults of minors.  Behind the scenes, Meyer can be seen giving explicit instructions to one of his henchmen to retrieve Alton under any circumstances, “What you do will decide our whole way of life — you have four days to get the boy back here.  The Lord has placed a heavy burden on you,” as this cult believes their Armageddon is near, a cataclysmic event prophesied by Alton.  The FBI’s interest is in the startling revelations expressed by this young boy, as much of it remains top secret and classified, including highly encrypted secret government information communicated by satellite, so they believe a spy is in their midst feeding this kid information.  When they finally interrogate Calvin Meyer, he’s almost shocked to discover the government’s own naïveté, “You have no clue what you’re dealing with, do you?”

Through interviews with the Ranch’s congregation, with NSA specialist Paul Sevier (Adam Driver) serving as the resident expert on Alton, we begin to get a picture of what we’re dealing with, where he’s like a little Harry Potter with magical powers that he’s too young to know what to do with, where he speaks in tongues, hears radio transmissions, or has nightmarish fits that cause destructive earthquakes, yet they believe he is the only one who can protect them against the coming Judgment Day.  In no time, the audience sees for themselves suggestions of Alton’s powers, where in a brilliant sequence that takes place in near silence, he inexplicably brings down an orbiting satellite back to earth, where it breaks up into thousands of pieces of burning shrapnel like a splintered meteor shower that wreaks havoc and destruction to a gas station below, as Alton apparently had a sense that the satellite was “watching” them.  This ominous sense of unbridled telekinetic power recalls Brian De Palma’s The Fury (1978) and a chilling Twilight Zone episode, “It's a Good Life” (The Twilight Zone), where a temperamental young boy could simply make people disappear if he grew angry or disappointed with them.  While Alton appears unscathed and innocent, it’s not clear whether his omnipotent powers will be used for good or evil, as the government thinks he’s a secret weapon, while the ranch believe he’s a savior.  The key to the film’s success is that it remains at heart a small film filled with personable moments and recognizable locales, another journey by this director into the American heartland of gas stations, cheap motels, pickup trucks, and trailer homes, where the influence of radio and television messages are as everpresent as guns and religion.  It draws from the rural malaise of feuding redneck families in his extraordinary first film Shotgun Stories, the director’s first hint of the supernatural, cast in the minimalist apocalyptic uncertainty of Take Shelter, but also a curious, Mark Twain-inspired life on the run in Mud, a film set on a river in the director’s home state of Arkansas.  What these films have in common is that they are grounded in the everyday ordinary experience, minimalist stories conceived and observed with a cool and poetic detachment.  

Shot in 40 days in and around New Orleans, including treks to Mississippi, Florida, and New Mexico, the film is a high-speed chase film with a family under immense pressure to provide the necessities of safety and shelter, becoming a road movie that connects with the intergalactic mysteries of the universe.  Driven by a David Wingo soundtrack that echoes the brooding synth scores of John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream, the film feels electrifying in its emotional peaks and valleys, tapping into a core of suspense and heightened inspiration.  While it’s clear fatherhood gives Roy an elevated sense of purpose and identity, desperately driven to protect Alton from nefarious outside forces that are collectively trying to find him, what’s less clear is the personal transformation happening inside Alton himself.  When Roy leads him to his mother Sarah (Kristen Dunst), who was excommunicated from the ranch, there is an instant connection of warmth and maternal love that seems to resuscitate Alton’s sagging spirits.  A throwback to an earlier era of childlike sci-fi innocence and wonder in Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) and E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982), especially the spectrum of light and depiction of authoritative government intervention, the film cleverly moves from tightly focused, small-scale family moments to something more incredibly mind-altering and soul-reaching, discovering powers that extend out into the unknown vastness of the cosmos.  Alton senses the nearing of his final destination as the appointed hour nears, with several key clues astoundingly presented, where there are unanticipated detours experienced along the way, some that come as an utter and complete surprise, where it’s hard to believe this all takes place over the course of just four days.  While Shannon and Edgerton beautifully portray the weighted anguish and pained severity of their calling, Dunst is at her best without ever uttering a word, deeply concerned yet seemingly lighter than air, a gentle spirit evoking a tender grace that was altogether missing in Melancholia (2011), yet the circumstances, while not the same, feel hauntingly familiar.  As if by Divine hand, something happens which cannot be explained, yet we witness a moment of celestial transcendence, where the lack of imagination and full extent of human flaws and limitations seem ridiculously inadequate in comparison.  The title song by Lucero is interestingly sung over the end credits, a traditional composition rewritten in 1934 by Leadbelly in Angola Prison, Lead Belly "Midnight Special" (With The Golden ... - YouTube (3:07), where the light of a passing train shone into the prison cells at night, offering a spiritual expression for a hoped-for release, given a more mystifying connection here. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016


MUD               A-                   
USA  (130 mi)  2012  d:  Jeff Nichols 

In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was. He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had. His liberties were totally unrestricted. He was the only really independent person—boy or man—in the community, and by consequence he was tranquilly and continuously happy and envied by the rest of us. And as his society was forbidden us by our parents the prohibition trebled and quadrupled its value, and therefore we sought and got more of his society than any other boy’s.

—from Mark Twain’s Autobiography, initially published in 1924, his description of childhood friend Tom Blankenship, used as the inspiration for the character Huck Finn, the real-life son of a sawmill laborer and sometime drunkard named Woodson Blankenship, who lived in a “ramshackle” house near the Mississippi River behind the house where Twain grew up in Hannibal, Missouri

Jeff Nichols has become what we all hoped indie director David Gordon Green would become before he developed a taste for making mainstream movies, a fiercely independent artist firmly rooted into the rural American soil of his films, finding unconventional stories through people living on the edge.  Like Green, Nichols is also a graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts, where much of this resembles the Southern Gothic look of the dilapidated rural poor in Green’s UNDERTOW (2004), which happened to be produced by Terrence Malick, filming his first and third films in his home state of Arkansas while also sharing Green’s musical composer, David Wingo, with a healthy dose of the alternative country band Lucero thrown in, as the front man of the group, Ben Nichols, is the director’s brother.  Nichols also borrows the youngest brother, Tye Sheridan, from Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), who is nothing short of brilliant in the lead role of only his second film, while also using Malick’s producer, Sarah Green.  Sheridan will, interestingly enough, be working with David Gordon Green, and also Nicolas Cage playing an ex-con (yes, it's a stretch), in his next film Joe (2013). The other major influence on the film is Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, especially the use of the river, both as a mystical symbol of freedom, but it also provides a colorful setting in this small Arkansas town, a portrait of reality in the everyday lives of people trying to make a living off of it.  From the outset, the river, as in Huckleberry Finn, is fraught with danger, but also adventure, where two best friend 14-year old boys, Tye as Ellis and Jacob Lofland as Neckbone, live with their families working the river and spend their free time on Ellis’s boat exploring the nearby tributaries of the Mississippi River, never actually venturing to the Mississippi itself, seen looming ominously off in the distance. 

While exploring a seemingly deserted island, they discover a house boat stuck in the upper branches of a tree, as if left there by a flood.  Inside the boat, they discover pornographic magazines, but also a current food supply, suggesting someone’s already living there.  Running back to their boat, they find a filthy, ragged looking man standing beside it fishing, introducing himself as Mud (Matthew McConaughey) in a friendly and non-threatening manner, telling them he’s there waiting on the island for someone.  The more they learn about this guy, the more curious Ellis grows, like an unraveling adventure story, as his own life is a mess, with his parents splitting up and getting a divorce, where afterwards the government will likely take their family’s boathouse on the river, while Neckbone, who lives with his uncle (Michael Shannon), is more suspicious.  To them, Mud is an enigma, a man seemingly living by his wits out in the wild that needs some help, claiming he’s trying to reunite with his lost love, the girl of his dreams, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).  Mud asks the boys to help bring him food and supplies, claiming he needs to fix up the boat to make their getaway, but if they help, he’ll give Neckbone the gun he keeps tucked into the back of his pants.  Even after finding out Mud killed a man that was physically abusing Juniper, tracking him down in the state of Texas and shooting him, where he’s now an outlaw and a wanted man, this notion of manly protection and true love captivates the imagination of Ellis, whose own home life is in turmoil, with his parents giving up on love and barely speaking, while at the same time he meets an older girl in town, May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), quickly grabbing her attention when he sees her getting hassled on the street and punches a guy that was giving her trouble, a guy several years older.  Through Mud, Ellis identifies with the idea of a man standing up for love, and even fighting for it, if necessary.  

One of the better indie films seen in almost a year, though told fairly straightforwardly like a family drama, Nichols is an intelligent filmmaker with a beautifully poetic, naturalistic style, where all the performances are perfectly understated, especially Sheridan as Ellis, who couldn’t be more compelling, as he risks quite a bit for a man he barely knows, quickly entering a grown up world without really understanding how it works.  When he discovers Juniper is living in a motel near a local Piggly Wiggly grocery store, Mud has him deliver her a message, where the atmospheric mood of the film establishes the mindset and influences the action of the film, as Ellis rushes headlong into the developing fray, unaware of the traps being set by the family of the killed man, where Joe Don Baker, Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser in WALKING TALL (1973) and out of the public eye for years, is the creepy family patriarch.  At the same time, none other than Sam Shepard is the mysterious loner living across the river from Ellis, curiously enough named Tom Blankenship, Twain’s childhood friend, who helps create a clearer picture of Mud, as he’s the closest thing to being his father.  But knowing Juniper is in the picture, Tom senses little can become of it except more trouble, suggesting that’s the truth of the matter, that she finds one ornery bastard after another just so Mud will beat the living crap out of him, taking some peculiar satisfaction out of that while Mud ends up hiding out in the middle of nowhere with the wrath of God waiting for him.  It’s all too confounding for Ellis, who believes they really love each other, which is the reason he’s risking his neck for the guy, as otherwise all the love has dried up in his life, where even his own father (Ray McKinnon) urges him not to place his trust in it.  This is not your typical coming-of-age tale, where these two kids are wise beyond their years, shown with a rarely seen complexity and grace, but still Ellis’s child’s eye view appropriately mixes the confusion about adult relationships with his own painfully naïve experiences with girls, where the visual poetry of the film helps express the underlying desperation he feels in witnessing the only world he knows slowly disappear.  Nichols has become one of the most assured indie directors working today, where perhaps the Palme D’Or success at Cannes of Malick’s 2011 Top Ten Films of the Year #1 The Tree of Life and Benh Zeitlin’s Sundance winner 2012 Top Ten List #1 Beasts of the Southern Wild have spurred a resurgence in American independent cinema, where even David Gordon Green may be attempting to return to his Southern Gothic roots.