Review: Midnight Special
Writer-director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud) undertakes a genre-centric route with his latest offering Midnight Special; about Roy (Michael Shannon) a father and his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who are being pursued by the CIA and a fundamentalist religious group after it is revealed the boy possesses special powers.
From the first scene onward, it’s clear that Nichols is interested taking the audience on a ride, over telling a conventional story, as it takes time for the details of the situation to really unfold. The film itself is evocative of late-1970s/mid-1980s sci-fi thrillers such as Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and John Carpenter’s Starman, and while it displays a flair for this kind of classic filmmaking, it does so with a captivating command for attention and detail. The way in which Nichols utilizes environment in every one of his sequences connotes a sense of realism that, when viewed against the backdrop of the plot, elevates matters and creates a pulse-pounding sense of intrigue from start to finish.
The most surprising thing about Midnight Special is the way in which it uses this particular narrative and genre elements to tell a deeper, moral story about the fears that lay dormant in becoming a parent. It’s a testament to Nichols’ gift as a natural storyteller, and despite being the second film of his to utilize such an angle (the first being Take Shelter), it comes off as remarkably fresh and organic, becoming the emotional center of the film that reinforces everything else around it.
This approach allows for a more primary connection with its characters, brought to life by a stellar ensemble. In his fourth pairing with the director, Michael Shannon, simply one of the best actors of this generation, is astonishing as Roy, and able to subtly convey the fears and pressures that come with losing your child. Joel Edgerton in the role of Roy’s childhood friend Lucas is the only one given sufficient expository information, and remains captivating for how he is willing to protect Alton out of sheer loyalty and friendship. Kirsten Dunst portrays Sarah, Alton’s estranged mother who is reunited with her family, and in only a small number of scenes deftly characterizes the feeling of abandonment in a truly touching manner. Adam Driver appears in a slightly comic role as Paul Sevier, an NSA officer on Roy’s trail who attempts to understand the significance of Alton’s abilities. The most surprisingly effective role comes from Jaeden Lieberher as Alton, who at times is precocious and others feels more mature than the adults surrounding him, being tasked with a huge responsibility beyond mortal comprehension.
Midnight Special is exactly the kind of sci-fi film you rarely see get made anymore, and is all the more effective for the mysterious pretense it unfolds with. Granted there are still major questions that linger as the credits begin to roll, but the underlying power remains in the quasi-ambiguous space where the audience is able to create their own theories. Nichols has made something truly special, with an enthralling story, genuine characters, and an astonishing sense of world building, that make this a soon-to-be-classic of the genre.