by Melissa Parkin
Midnight Special tells the story of Roy (Michael Shannon) after he escapes a rural Texas cult with his eight-year-old son Alton (St. Vincent’s Jaeden Lieberher). Accompanied by a state trooper, Roy’s childhood friend (Joel Edgerton), they take off down remote roads under the cover of night in an old Chevy as an Amber Alert is issued. Initially opening as a chase-thriller, it’s unclear as to the motivations of Alton’s hijackers. In fact, everyone’s an enigma, particularly the boy who’s oddly sporting goggles and noise-canceling headphones. As it turns out, the trio is being pursued by both the government and religious extremists who believe that Alton is either a threat or a messiah. Why might they think this? As it turns out, the curious boy with the glowing eyes in the backseat just so happens to possess otherworldly abilities.
Jeff Nichols’ films, though highly acclaimed, remain grossly underseen. Finding one of his movies playing at your local cinema seems as likely as stumbling across a Honus Wagner baseball card on the sidewalk. Being a fan of his work since seeing 2011’s Take Shelter, I’d made a conscious effort to see his newest films when they hit theaters. With that determination in mind, it took two gallons of gas and an hour-long drive just to get to the closest screening for Midnight Special. My expectations were admittedly high before I even got to the theater, as you can imagine, given that the round trip cost more than the price of the movie ticket.
As seen in Nichols’ previous works, Midnight Special teases its audience with the conceptions of each genre the director/writer tackles, but he never fully commits to the formula. Nichols also refrains from the conventional narrative. While similar films map out everything from the get-go, Midnight treats you as if you’re a fly on the wall. You’re not told anything through exposition. The world is fully recognized, but it’s left up entirely to the audience to piece the story together. This brilliantly executed concept leaves an underlying tension woven throughout the entirety of the plot, all the while making the relationships between his characters the true focus. And it’s always refreshing to know that the filmmaker trusts his viewers to be both smart and curious enough to follow along.
It’s impossible not to draw comparisons between Midnight Special and the early works of Steven Spielberg, particularly E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. The earthy Texas scenery and throwback fashions also lends a hand in capturing an ambiguously retro time period, seen similarly in last year’s horror hit It Follows. Accompanied by David Wingo’s churning ethereal score, the film’s underlying mystery lifts expectations to dizzying heights, which may be its only downfall come the final act. Rarely does a film of this nature truly satisfy everyone upon payout. And given the secrecy surrounding the project, it’s impossible to express said oversights in greater detail, at the cost of potentially spoiling the film. With that said, fans of Nichols’ previous films like Mud and Take Shelter will find the emotional investment more gratifying than the eventual conclusion.
This is made possible by the stellar cast. Your average moviegoer may be familiar with Michael Shannon for his towering stature and often villainous character portrayals in films such as Premium Rush and Man of Steel. Having worked with Nichols on every one of the director’s projects, there’s no doubt as to why Shannon’s partnership remains so strong. Between the complexity of his characters and the continuous choice to never play into Shannon’s wheelhouse, Nichols always pulls a wholly original and even stronger performance from the actor with each project. And as previously seen in Mud, Nichols clearly has an eye for casting great child actors. Jaeden Lieberher is no exception. With regards to the supporting players, Sam Sheppard never disappoints, and Adam Driver shines as the film’s comic relief. As for Joel Edgerton, this Aussie can’t seem to do any wrong as he continues his hot streak of truly riveting performances. Additional credit goes out to him for having nailed a spot-on Texas accent. Honestly, is there an inflection this man can’t do? The biggest surprise comes from Kirsten Dunst who delivers in the heartbreakingly powerful portrayal of Alton’s frumpy, excommunicated mother, a turn many did not expect out of the actress (unless you’ve been watching FX’s Fargo). Seriously, if you haven’t seen her in it, you’re really missing out. Binge-watch, people.
In summary, Midnight Special is a truly beautiful, albeit uneven viewing experience that will undoubtedly be the topic of conversation upon exiting the theater. Its homage to classic 80’s sci-fi is a breath of fresh air amid the storm of CGI blockbusters flooding the cinema. The film ultimately works better as a character study than a science fiction piece, but it’s still a compelling experience that shouldn’t be missed.
Rating: A –