Rating: 3½ stars (out of 4)
Midnight Special (2016): Written and directed by Jeff Nichols. Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Kirsten Dunst, and Adam Driver. Rated PG-13 for some violence and action. Running time: 112 minutes.
This film grips you. It’s a vise of harrowing action and wondrous visions, and even more wondrous ideas. I was enthralled from the opening scene, as two men make a muscle car getaway through the looming Texas night. These men are armed and dangerous, and they bear precious cargo: a young boy named Alton, blessed (or cursed) with an immense source of power. But they’re surrounded by darkness on all sides, by forces beyond their control or even understanding.
The film expands from there, as we learn, gradually but gracefully, why these fellows are on the run, and who exactly is pursuing them. And even as the film’s pace becomes more deliberate, it refuses to let go. Here is undeniable proof that a director need not sacrifice detail and atmosphere to heighten the tension of the piece.
With his fourth film, Nichols has proven he’s the real deal, a filmmaker whose work is deeply personal but also skillfully restrained. This may be his first foray into genre filmmaking, though his 2011 masterpiece Take Shelter also melded elements of the fantastic seamlessly with parental and masculine angst.
Even with its genre trappings, at its heart Midnight Special really is another foray into the complicated adventure of parenthood. Jaeden Lieberher’s Alton seems to possess significant powers (he can detect government satellites, manipulate electricity to a certain extent, and offer visions of higher planes of existence) but he’s also extremely vulnerable, sought after by cult members and government agents alike.
The immense paranoia and danger evoked by Nichols and his team not only makes the film incredibly exciting to watch, but also reflective of the enormous task of child rearing. Add to this that Alton seeks a reunion with beings like himself, and this becomes not only a story of protecting a child, but also of being brave enough to let them go.
Shot by cinematographer Adam Stone (who also lensed Nichols’s previous three films), the film takes on a blueish sheen that evokes the sci-fi implications of Alton’s power while continually emphasizing the immensity of blackness and the unknown. Yet we also get some impressive daylight filmmaking, with dark treelines set starkly against vivid dawn skies. Nichols has an eye for scenery but also for meticulous detail in his compositions.
Speaking of recurring collaborators, the film also marks Nichols’s fourth time working with actor Michael Shannon. His wide, sinister face means he’s been cast typically in surlier roles (villains in Man of Steel and Premium Rush, or the nefarious Nelson Van Alden on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire). But his part in Midnight Special reveals new levels of tenderness for the oft-typecast actor. His demeanor may seem implacable, but Shannon lets the lines in his face soften in key moments, and you can tell the love he has for his son is unequivocal.
There will be much familiar material here, especially for those familiar with Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T., or even John Carpenter’s Starman. But if the references are familiar, the way Nichols approaches them are something truly to behold. These are proceedings exceedingly well-observed, allowing for humorous beats and for the gifted talents of the cast.
We’ve seen relentless G-men pursuing people before, but I doubt we’ve seen someone quite like Adam Driver’s Paul Sevier, whose novice tendencies belie his intense investment and intellectual curiosity. And sure, we’ve seen interrogation scenes before, with suspects handcuffed to desks. But how many scenes pay so much attention to the sound of that cuff chain, as Joel Edgerton’s Lucas subtly rebuffs his captors?
If I have any complaints, it’s that the central family feels more distant than I’d like. Nichols asks us to accept the bond they have with their son, while keeping what knowledge they have of his powers mostly under wraps. While I believe this effectively conveys the bond of a tight-knit family, I have to wonder if a closer look at either Shannon’s Roy or Kirsten Dunst’s Sarah may have allowed us easier access into their lives outside of their son. And while the cult pursuers played by Bill Camp and Scott Haze leave quite an impression in their brief screen time (Camp in particular, who seems fully aware of the horror of his “holy” mission), they figure less into the plot than you’d expect, meaning we lose some truly terrifying antagonists too early.
Still, I bring up these gripes not because I disliked what was on screen, but because I wanted more. Luckily, I won’t have long to wait; Nichols has a film about the infamous Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case out this fall.
Midnight Special will seem like an anomaly amongst its fellow studio films, in that it declines to explain its otherworldly phenomena. Instead, it focuses its energies on its emotional threads. That will prove frustrating for some, but quite rewarding if you embrace the mystery. I certainly did, and what visions I have witnessed.