Midnight Special (2016)

He’s not like us.

Arkansas-born writer-director Jeff Nichols seems to have developed a bit of a following after Take Shelter (2011) and Mud (2012) resonated with both viewers and critics alike. Intimate and layered, these Southern Gothic dramas were praised for their intense emotional centers and complex multifaceted characters. His fourth film, Midnight Special, sees Nichols continue this uniquely confident cinematic journey, this time with a larger budget at his disposal and the addition of several big name stars, which are joined by regular collaborator Michael Shannon, Man of Steel (2013). Influenced by government-chase flicks from the ‘70s and ‘80s, such as John Carpenter’s Starman (1984) and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Midnight Special explores parental devotion along with faith and the idea of believing in something unseen, with Nichols unraveling the narrative hook in his slow-burning trademark style.

High Five?
High Five?

As supernatural as it is human, Midnight Special tells the story of Roy (Michael Shannon), the biological father of Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher), an eight-year-old boy who requires special attention due to an unusual sensitivity to sunlight and unexplainable powers rooted from an origin that very few understand. Snatched from his stepfather Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), leader of the rural cult (the Third Heaven Ranch) in which he was born, Roy and his old friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), race against the clock to escort Alton (through the American South) to a special rendezvous spot where he will discover his ultimate purpose. Struggling to keep a low profile, the troupe find themselves shadowed by members of the said cult (who believe that Alton is Divine), the U.S. Government (afraid that the boy might be part of a terrorist scheme involving a nuclear device) and NSA whiz-kid, agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), a backpack-toting analyst appointed with the task of trying to figure it all out.

Those familiar with Nichols’ work already know that the 37-year-old filmmaker isn’t too keen on exposition — his characters don’t speak in monologues nor do they explain every little detail via voice-over — and Midnight Special is no different. Here, viewers are introduced to the film’s key players mid-chase and are never given anything beyond the basics, most of the focus being on Alton and his abilities. Hence, Midnight Special isn’t the generic Spielberg blockbuster that its trailers suggest — it takes time to unfold, however those who invest themselves in the film will be rewarded, with the audience urged to become active participants in piecing together the account. Although Nichols dabbled with a bit of VFX in Take Shelter, Midnight Special is also his most effects-heavy project to date, with a satellite explosion (over a Louisiana truck stop) crashing onscreen at precisely the right time, while the CGI heavy finale brings things to a open-ended yet heartfelt conclusion.

'Ummm, I think something's up with the monitor ...'
‘Ummm, I think something’s up with the monitor …’

Not as powerful as the riveting Take Shelter, Midnight Special possesses several running themes, the chief being parenthood — Nichols himself admitting that he basically wrote the story for Midnight Special after almost losing his eight-month-old son. With that in mind, it’s easy to see Alton as an allegory for a sick kid who needs special attention due to an illness or medical condition, with Nichols demonstrating an understanding of the trials and tribulations one must face when dealing with such hardships. Basically, when you strip it all down, Midnight Special is really about the bond between a parent and child (in this case, fatherly protection), and in that respect is indicative of Nichols’ entire body of work, with each of his pictures (in their own quirky way) exploring the transcendent and universal subject of family.

Much of the heavy lifting however, falls on the shoulders of Nichols’ capable cast who do an exceptional job throughout this emotional ride. Michael Shannon (in his fourth Jeff Nichols feature) portrays Roy as a thoughtful, diplomatic non-violent guy, one without an ego or hidden addenda, but a man who will fight with everything he’s got when push comes to shove. Jaeden Lieberher, St. Vincent (2014), is impressive as the comic-book-reading, potentially dangerous Alton, Lieberher’s uncanny composure selling the character. Starting off as a child (his face obscured by swimming goggles), Lieberher brings a real sense of depth to Alton, who (as the story progresses) becomes more of a leader, advising his family where they need go. Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia (2011), is also solid as Alton’s mother Sarah Tomlin — a woman conditioned by cult lifestyle. Having left the Ranch some years earlier, Sarah has since become estranged from her husband and son, Dunst bringing out Sarah’s loneliness in an excellent subdued performance (fun fact, Dunst wears no discernible makeup here). Then there’s Matt, I mean, Adam Driver, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015), as the ‘not quite government-issue’ agent Paul Sevier, a bright NSA analyst who takes a different approach to this very ‘out-there’ case.

'Ready or not ... here I come!'
‘Ready or not … here I come!’

With first-rate work by long-time Nichols cinematographer Adam Stone, Mud (2012), and an electrifying score by composer David Wingo, Maggie (2015), Midnight Special is a true example of a filmmaker using the power of imagery to convey a message, as it’s the sights and sounds that will ultimately remain with us once the final credits have rolled. While a few unanswered questions remain, Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special (although not for everyone) makes for a contemplative and provocative, genre defying experience. So, in the great words of Creedence Clearwater Revival, ‘let the Midnight Special shine its light on you!’

3.5 / 5 – Great

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

Midnight Special is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia